BOOK REVIEW / Famine with luvvy chit-chat: 'Cause Celeb' - Helen Fielding: Picador, 14.99 pounds

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WITH Rwanda dying, the idea of this book at first sends hackles rising: publicity puffette flees to Africa to escape London media world, returning some years later to enlist celebrity acquaintances in a television emergency appeal. Oh puh-lease, as one of the celebs exclaims. But in fact this satire is sharp, gutsy, and refreshing. Fielding confidently treads the tricky path of exercising her wit on those who deserve it without being flip about these who don't.

The action alternates between compulsively ghastly flashbacks of Rosie's life in London, and Rosie the Real Person in Africa, braced for an imminent flood of refugees for whom there are no supplies. The glitzy world makes an easy butt for the satirist's pen, with some toe-curling snatches of luvvy chit-chat, but more interestingly Fielding is neither precious nor pious about the front-line aid workers themselves. Motives for joining up are ruthlessly exposed: one could tick Missionary, Mercenary, Misfit or Broken Heart. Rosie herself has far from altruistic stimuli - she sets up her first trip purely to meet handsome television presenter Oliver, a dreadful character capable of driving any girl to become a missionary on the moon.

Fielding gives us the whole range of stances on the African Problem, from Betty, a motherly doctor, who coos reverently: 'we must always listen to the voice of the African', to VIP Kate who says self-righteously, 'you want to help, but really . . . one can't do everything.' Most of the pace is set by the African sections of the book, where the well-maintained tension enforces the seriousness of the essential theme. This is offset by some nicely-turned acerbic phrases: the lovesick nurse producing 'a look you could have spread on a sponge cake,' the girl with 'a bottom like two snooker balls.' Beneath the satire, Rosie's successful transformation of her own life conveys a positive message, notwithstanding the personnel director's early warning that 'relief work in Africa is not as meaningful as you imagine.'

The book attacks the lethargy of governments, the slow bureaucratic movements of the UN, the human weak links in the relief agency itself. The author feelingly emphasises the frustration and isolation of the relief workers, while the local UN High Commissioner glibly fobs off rumours of the approaching famine: 'Watch my lips. It is another scare.' In a just-possible reversal of roles, the Famous Club save the day, despite some inevitable lapses of taste. Fielding is careful to air all possible reservations one might feel, but the final verdict is that the end justifies the means.