BOOK REVIEW / The spectre calls: 'Women & Ghosts' - Alison Lurie: Heinemann, 12.99

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The Independent Culture
YOU ARE unlikely to be spooked by Alison Lurie's ghosts - who could be afraid of poor old deceased Dwayne Mudd, haunting his ex-lover by whispering in her ear that her new men have bad breath or athlete's foot? Or of the mahogany tallboy which retaliates nastily if treated badly? - this is not seriously scary, nor is it meant to be. But Lurie's portraits of women and men may well send a chill down your spine.

Obsessive female tics are here in abundance; binge eating, neurotic tidiness, uncontrollable talking, emotional dependence on designer clothes or household furniture. Lurie's witchy, comical eye doesn't miss a trick, conjuring up phantasms which are tailor-made for the needs and foibles of a wide spectrum of women. Several of her victims are deeply unlikeable, and richly deserve everything they have coming to them; others are more sympathetic, but all are thoroughly recognisable. The woman who miserably slugs her way through the creme de menthe while her husband is out flirting at parties, the woman who lovingly fingers clothes in a shop she cannot afford, are representative figures of familiar dissatisfactions.

Men do not come out of this book well either. From Gregor Spiegelman, the devastating bachelor concealing an underbelly of chauvinism, infidelity and mental cruelty, to Robbie McEwen, a Wordsworth scholar who turns himself into a sheep, these men mostly either have God's-gift complexes or are sensitive but wet. The only decent specimen is the 'slightly odd-looking' Charles Fenn, final destination of the girl haunted by Dwayne Mudd. Charles scores points for being the first man ever to rumble the secret of Celia's numerous conquests: that old trick of making a man think he's fascinating by listening to everything he says and never mentioning yourself.

All of this rolls past in a lightweight but enjoyable way, comfortably seated in the easy conversational style of the female narrators who begin their sentences, 'What I did was . . .' or 'So I told myself okay . . .' The occasional figurative phrase does slip in and hit home, like the finnicky woman who recoils from her neighbour's bad temper 'as if a wave full of dirty seaweed had slapped too close to her on a beach'. But some of her creations are less convincing than others - the famous poetess of the last tale is awkwardly conspicuous among this gathering of everyday women. But there are bright moments elsewhere, and each woman's ghost is really a vehicle for all-too-real revelations about herself.