Aunt we sexy

Part of the Furniture by Mary Wesley, Bantam, pounds 15.99

Mary Wesley's new novel returns us to her vision of wartime England which made A Camomile Lawn and A Sensible Life such powerful and individual books. Their undeniable appeal was partly caused by an idiosyncratic view of wartime London - opportunist, light-hearted, randy. For those readers brought up on the belief that the spirit of Dunkirk was one of heroic sublimation and self-denial, the view of wartime Britain as a place where a girl up from the country could be assured of a good time was refreshing.

The author was herself a young woman in wartime London, and part of the pleasure of her books is their sense of nostalgia, their authenticity, and the huge frisson which comes from reading someone old enough to be a great-grandmother writing raunch. It's like hearing your great-aunt swear: in theory you know she can do it, but when she does it's still a thrill.

Part of the Furniture shares these hallmark strengths of a Wesley novel but the story strains the reader's credibility to the utmost. Juno Marlowe who has just been doubly raped by her adored cousins sees them off on a secret wartime mission and runs barefoot through the freezing streets during a bombing raid. Grabbed by a complete stranger, she goes to his house and gets into bed with him, where they both fall asleep. Imagine her consternation when she wakes in the morning to find him dead! What can she do but slide down the banisters and find her way to the dead stranger's father on his understaffed idyllic country farm, where she is welcomed with open arms.

The rest is both predictable and so heavily signposted that even the densest reader might find their way through to the typically Wesleyan happy ending. In Wesley's erotic moral economy, unsympathetic characters are punished by death or celibacy, good people are rewarded with lashings of sexual pleasure.

The strength of this book and the others in the trilogy is the impression you gain that they were conceived as a whole. Never is a character introduced and then forgotten; even the walk-on parts will walk on elsewhere. Because of this, the novels become powerfully persuasive. A girl who has an Aunt in one of the novels will still have an Aunt in another. More intricately, another novel may feature the Aunt, who will refer to her niece. It's a technical point, perhaps more interesting to other writers than to readers, but it shows the care Wesley invests in these novels.

For the casual reader the benefits are very great. The novels create a persuasive world of interconnected relationships, very like reality. This is perhaps why one forgives Wesley the absurdity of events. The bombs which fall but don't explode, the accidents, the coincidences, the missing letters, the surprises of love. She does her backgrounds so superbly that one can forgive the silliness of the foreground stories and the stereotypical characters.The beloved Devon landscape, the pet and eccentric members of county society carry the reader happily to the satisfying end.

This is not her best novel: Juno is too superficial, her story is too lucky, to engage the reader, unlike Poppy Carew or Hebe in Wesley's previous novels; but the many millions of fans of The Camomile Lawn and A Sensible Life are guaranteed the pleasure of meeting old friends and discovering new connections.

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