Battle of the notepads

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The Independent Culture
CRAZY PAVING Louise Doughty Touchstone £9.99

In Crazy Paving, Louise Doughty's first novel, the grey horizons of deepest South London aren't exactly washed clean, but do come up a lighter shade of pale. Criss-crossing the area is London's "Capital Transport" network. Annette, Joan and Helly rely onthis temperamental system not only to get them to work, but also to make a living - as secretaries for the Capital Transport Authority.

Doughty is well-versed in the absurdities and rituals of office life. One of these - requests from middle-aged males for cups of coffee - is at the heart of one of the novel's set pieces and very funny, capturing that tone of "politeness within the context of total command". But that's not to say that the women form a natural sisterhood. It's only when "the gits" stoop too low that Helly, Annette and Joan lay down their spiral note-pads and prepare for battle.

The plot, involving corruption in the highest places, is less important than the developing relationship between these mis-matched office-mates. Annette, 31, with limp hair and bulimic tendencies, resides in spotless splendour in a modern starter home inRushey Green. Helly, office junior from hell, is as slatternly and bad-tempered as any French and Saunders schoolgirl, while kind, cheery Joan lives a life of quiet desperation just off the Camberwell New Road.

Doughty's prose comes thick and fast, and although not all the comedy works - Richard, the S-and-M-loving boss, is a little too over-blown to be funny - a sad honesty tinges her humour to just the right degree. Peopled with extras who could just have walked off a Mike Leigh set, Crazy Paving is almost too rich in detail; but it's the likeable excess of a first-time novelist, and Doughty's sharp insights always save the day - even the potentially disastrous finale when she sends her heroines hurtling towards their own Waterloos, or in this case, Victoria Station.