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A past with no groan unturned

FICTION: HUMAN CROQUET by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday pounds 15.99
Kate Atkinson's second novel, the successor to her Whitbread Award- winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is another foray into the world of domestic gothic, with a first-person young-girl narrator, but this time set in 1960 with lapses and relapses into the recent and distant past. Isobel Fairfax wakes in the family home, "Arden", on her 16th birthday, haunted by a melancholy scent of "nicotine, Arpege and sex". She gradually recognises this as the perfume of her mother Eliza, the reason for whose sudden disappearance years earlier forms the powerful enigma at the heart of the story.

It is easy to see how the sophisticated and exotic Eliza might have felt out of place in the Fairfax household: they are a family of provincial grocers, joyless, unimaginative and full of good, solid English food. The household is presented in a series of relentlessly camped-up comic vignettes: monomaniac grandmother Charlotte, mad Vinny, "the Aunt from Hell", sad Gordon, the melancholic father of Isobel and her older brother Charles, a stunted, spotty 18-year-old obsessed by the absence of his mother and the existence of alien life-forms. Later additions to the cast include a lecherous lodger (who turns into a fly), Gordon's lumpish second wife, Debbie, an abandoned baby and the ghost of Shakespeare, as well as a plentiful cast of psychopathic neighbours and oddball teenagers, and if you think this sounds as if the novel is in danger of getting out of control at several points, you could be right.

"Call me Isobel," the book begins, "(It's my name)"; and for a good while it's clear that Kate Atkinson means to leave no joke un-made, in a style so full of tricks and contrivances that it seems like cheating, and possibly not too difficult to write. Every character has a quirk which is played on relentlessly, and there are so many "nice touches" that one begins to feel groped. The novel is packed with matter, much of it highly entertaining (why is a catalogue of trees and an account of photosynthesis interesting in a novel but not in a science textbook?), but it doesn't seem to want to tell us anything important, perhaps adhering too closely to the rules of "Human Croquet" itself, which, a postscript informs us, "provides little exercise, but plenty of laughter".

But "Arden" is built on the site of Fairfax Manor, in the heart of an ancient forest, and is haunted by a past which starts to draw Isobel back into itself. Things begin to happen twice, and differently; what might have been cloaking the possibility of ever finding out what was. This is where the novel begins to be interestingly confusing, and the device of time-warping, at first simply devious, is taken very much further than the reader anticipates, beyond the point at which it appears fanciful and into a region where all sorts of possibilities open up. The sections of flashback (or not, as the case may be) to blitzed London, or Fairfax Manor in Elizabethan times, or the turn-of-the-century household of Sir Edward de Breville, move the book onto a different plane, and the switch from first- to third-person narrator admits a sort of subtlety that seems to have been almost wilfully kept at bay elsewhere (an example is the section in which Gordon's relationship with his mother is defined by his new-found sensuality with his wife). Even mad Aunt Vinny, the milch- cow for black humour, has her moment of release, when glimpsed in a youth that "smells of lavender and roast beef and gleams with modest wealth".

Once you've given up trying to follow the real plot - if there is one - the problem of the book having no message becomes irrelevant; the author makes you attend to her contradictory stories for their own sake. "How is an imagined Christmas different from a remembered one?" Isobel asks in the middle of a (possible) fantasy about what life might have been like if her mother hadn't vanished. If we can imagine doing things (such as losing our virginity to Shakespeare: "Spaniel eyes and chestnut hair. Not yet bald, slightly greasy. Leather boots (...) He tastes of cloves") just how sure can we be that they haven't happened?