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Books: Shiftless in Southwold

E Jane Dickson goes into the flimsy beach-huts and crumbling follies of Suffolk to discover a new style of architecture, and a change of heart; Female Ruins by Geoff Nicholson Gollancz, pounds 9.99, 221pp
THERE IS a kind of English understatedness that has nothing to do with stiff upper lips. If the emotions in Female Ruins are not splashed across the sky, it is not that these emotions are stifled, but that they are active, skirmishing things, constantly cancelling each other out.

Kelly Howell is a heroine you couldn't second-guess. Her late father, Christopher Howell, was a visionary and cult figure, "the greatest modern English architect never to have built a building". Exhausted by the probings of academics desperate for details of the great man, Kelly lives a quietly unconventional life driving a mini-cab in East Anglia. Self-contained to the point of inertia, she enjoys driving because it is a semi- automatic function. She does not particularly enjoy exercising at the gym but she does it because she knows she will feel better. She has similar expectations of sex, but is often disappointed. When Dexter, a Californian tourist with a serious irony deficiency, hires her for sightseeing on the Suffolk coast, her hopes are not high.

East Anglia is an excellent setting for Nicholson's palette of half-tints and Kelly is an engaging tour-guide. She has inherited her father's passion for architectural foibles, and the bemused Dexter is treated to beach huts at Southwold, the follies of Thorpeness, ruined churches, crazy-golf courses, and Sizewell B nuclear plant.

Kelly's feeling for "insubstantial architecture", interleaved with her father's philisophical writings, is the real keystone of Female Ruins. We are romantically attracted to ruins because they represent a glory that is gone, but beach huts and the like were never built for glory, so all the bets are off. Nicholson is the least invasive of authors, writing comfortably in the third person. His heroine is never given the narrative once-over: we're not told if she's pretty or plain, right or wrong but, through the buildings she loves, Kelly's self image, flimsy and faded but still standing, is revealed.

Slowly, Nicholson expands the metaphor. When Dexter and Kelly visit the ruined monastery at Monkwich and stand on the crumbling shore where the bleached bones of parishioners reach out of the cliff face, the point is made. Even our most solidly founded buildings, the churches faith leads us to think of as sempiternal, are, from a millennial perspective, temporary. Everyone builds his house on the sand, because sand, in the end, is all there is. Nothing is permanent: not buildings, not people, certainly not passion.

Kelly and Dexter have a brief, deeply unromantic affair, but when it turns out that Dexter has links with her father's past, the relationship turns into something more complicated than love or sex. Again, these feelings are acknowledged only in terms of architecture. Kelly is greatly taken with her father's theory of "gendered space". In this value system, the Puritan iconoclasts who scrubbed out saints' painted faces and their minimal modern descendants are seen as testosterone-powered hooligans, while the ruined icons, from plaster virgins of the 17th century to the screen idols of Hollywood, are inherently, but not inviolately, female.

Only when the action switches to California, where everything is hard- edged and shiny, does Nicholson's preoccupation with Englishness become properly apparent. America's motel-culture and flat-pack malls are transient, disposable,without the grace of even a pretended faith in the future. Kelly feels more dislocated than ever in a country where her father's eccentricities are not seen as a flash of brilliance but a failure of professionalism.

Stripped of her last illusions about her father, Kelly may be wiser, but she is no sadder. True to form, she subverts our expectations and emerges feeling faintly liberated. Nicholson's philosophy is dense but not all dark. In a world where all will come to dust, there are still some small redemptions. Female Ruins shows us how to wrest them from the wreckage.