BOOK REVIEW / First fumbles and cross-dressing: 'The Wives of Bath' - Susan Swan: Granta, 8.99

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FOR those of us without the means to have been to them, our knowledge of girls' boarding schools and their arcane rituals is borrowed from fiction. To girls of my generation, our envy spiked by the class-ridden sagas of Elinor M Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton, they invoke images of illicit midnight feasts, of slim, clear- skinned head girls, and of ageing Mam'zelles and other spinsters who one later suspected were lesbian in imagined secret lives.

Ageing dykes are about the only thing Susan Swan's modern fantasy shares with those dog-eared Young Penguins. Mallory Towers it is not. True, there are mistresses who measure tunic lengths and deliver lectures on deportment, but Bath Ladies College, as seen through the eyes of Mary Beatrice (aka Mouse) Bradford in 1963, has none of the hothouse camaraderie readers of the genre have come to expect.

This has less to do with the school's Canadian setting than with the manner of Mouse's arrival and her odd appearance. Mouse is an outsider who sees the world through pebble glass. At 13, she is dispatched to the school with as little ceremony and sympathy as a food parcel by her beloved doctor father and his wife, Sal, a gin-swilling nurse. Mouse has five-inch fingers, 'a sly, wise face', pointy, flat ears and a hump (her beast of burden from a childhood dose of polio), called Alice, with which she conducts tortuous conversations about gender: ' 'I think it's too late, Alice, I've even got (groan) hair down there.' 'You mean that patch springing out between your legs as if it's electrified?' '

Mouse doesn't like girls much, in the abstract anyway, though she greatly admires the beautiful Tory, who is in love with Lewis, the garden boy, and is fascinated by Lewis's sister, Paulie, a renegade orphan who smokes and plays truant and has an alarming habit of banging her head when frustrated. From the outset, we know that Paulie has committed a terrible crime - 'a weird, Napoleonic act of self-assertion'; it is Mouse's task to unravel its meaning.

Quick to spot Mouse's lonely vulnerability, Paulie draws her into an imaginary 'man's' world whose 'tests' - peeing standing up, practising shaving, whipping and being whipped - become increasingly perverse.

It would spoil the story to reveal precise details of the deed that finally lands Paulie in a mental institution - but the bulk of Swan's novel deals with bodily horror of various kinds, from the sweaty flushes of a first fumble at the school dance to more bizarre games of cross-dressing.

In the gaps between all this, Mouse shares her emotional growing pains with John F Kennedy, to whom she writes justificatory letters explaining her father's absentee love in terms of the demands of his job. As a conduit for innocence - she knows something is wrong with Paulie, but, like most adolescents, lacks a barometer of 'normality' beyond her immediate experience - Mouse is a credible enough narrator. But she's oddly inscrutable too. We're interested, but unmoved by her predicament, and sometimes irritated by the cutesy way she talks of: 'my old Mouse heart', 'my Mouse nibble', 'my weak Mouse will'. You want to trap that Mouse and strangle it.

Swan has described her novel as 'sexual gothic', by which she means a kind of fiction that deals with the betrayal of the body. This is a compelling idea; but despite the presence of a ghost on a tricycle, a dwarf and the lumbering school buildings themselves, there's just not enough of an atmosphere to warrant the 'gothic' tag.

The Wives of Bath works best at the level of teenage observation, its language improvised and slangy: 'I began to shake in the worst way when I felt his fingers creep under my shirt and walk plink-plink- plink in little fakey spider steps up to the nipple of my left breast', and what moments like these tell us about sexual confusion. At the beginning of the novel, a group of boys from the neighbouring college swarms over the school fence like an invading army; Mouse's roommate tries to squeeze her puppyish body into a corset; Paulie dresses up as a boy. Everywhere the girls seem bent on forcing themselves into a mould designed for them by some cruel social engineer.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mouse is astute enough to recognise in her own sexual ambivalence the desire for the power ascribed to men. Refreshingly free of the adult trappings of psychoanalytic explanations, her story none the less explores just how easily the concept of penis envy can go horribly wrong.