Books: Women who fall for women who play games

Georgiana's Closet by Dale Gunthorp Virago pounds 9.99

There's something intriguing about good writers who start late. You can't help wondering what they've been up to all this time. Perhaps, like Annie Proulx, they were busy marrying and raising families. Perhaps, as for Frank McCourt, it took most of a lifetime for the story finally to work its way out on to the page. Or perhaps they were just having too good a time to get around to the laborious business of writing it all down.

This last seems the most likely explanation for 58-year-old and first- time novelist Dale Gunthorp. With Georgiana's Closet, an arch and affectionate chronicle of closeted queer miscreants in London at the precise moment of Thatcher's demise, she has produced a brittle and brilliant comedy of manners which, with one eyebrow provocatively raised, scrutinises the irresponsible goings-on of a bunch of 40- and 50-somethings who have spent far too many years in each other's company, and in each other's beds.

Georgiana's crowd, featuring an eclectic selection of professions and pastimes (foreign office diplomat, frequently resting clairvoyant actress, alcoholic ex-schoolmistress, hypochondriac choirmaster, animal- loving ex-lesbian who's now a gay man) isn't your average bunch of queers. For one thing, their particular London charts an unfamiliar and faintly glamorous geography of shabby and faded gentility, where threadbare carpets line the floors of drafty mansion flats in St John's Wood, Frognal and Marylebone, and where Dalston is a clear signifier of danger.

For another thing, they wouldn't dream of calling themselves queer. It's vulgar and political and, besides, they're actually not that sexually discriminating. Green-eyed actress Chelsey still hasn't been forgiven for scrawling "lesbian bitch" in scarlet paint over the wall of Georgiana's flat many years ago. It was never discussed. She was simply allowed back after an appropriate exile.

Georgiana herself, an ageing parody of fine bone structure, presides over her colourful crowd with practised grace. For more than 20 years, on the third Saturday of the month, she has been throwing parties for the same select group of friends in the same large room of her tiny flat - the one with the three beautiful full-length windows and the glittering chandelier from an old set of The Cherry Orchard. All is well until Fiona and Lorraine, partners of 10 years' standing, pillars of their small society, co-owners of a house and a dog and a shared conviction that their marriage is both wonderful and invulnerable, turn up with a stranger in tow: a plain, macrobiotic-looking little thing called Lucy, just 26, wearing a duffle coat and a rucksack and waiting, "with the air of a dog tethered outside a shop" for attention to be dispensed her way. Lucy is dangerous. She is desperate to belong. She believes in sisterhood, and sharing, and honesty. She is sleeping with Lorraine.

You can tell it's the end of an era. Not even hypocrisy is as simple as it used to be. Georgiana's seemingly inviolable temple of loyalty, friendship and smug insularity crumbles deliciously into dust with the merest whiff of danger- ous liaisons: after all that experimenting with trust and non-monogamy, it seems that women can't play those games with each other after all.

Gunthorp's story is racy, her writing stylish and her wit seemingly effortless, but what lifts it above the level simply of well-written cynical observation are the unlaboured and beautifully realised moments of insight and experience which underlie the whole brittle surface of Georgiana's Closet and its inhabitants - the private fears of loneliness, of menopause, of ageing and dying; the terrible fragility of human connection. It's a great debut, with a clear moral: live first, write later.

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