Books: Cassie and Rona go mad on the Loire: Briege Duffaud on Janice Galloway's fine portrait of two women cutting loose in France

Janice Galloway's lovely new novel, Foreign Parts (Cape, pounds 14.99) traces the journey of two middle- aged women through northern France, from Normandy to the Loire. There they go, 'fraudulent moochers in other peoples' territory, getting by on the cheap,' sweating, peeling, getting lost and painstakingly doing the rounds of the museums - 'You feel you should go and see the major attractions. There must be a reason why they're major, after all.'

France comes across in miniature, and in feminine. 'The place was full of naked men . . . Noble profiles striking grittily determined poses, sinewy limbs etched with striving, turtle plates of muscle on the belly and visible hip bones sloping down to his crotch, chiselled curls circling soft sleeping penises. We weren't in the running at all.'

Foreign parts indeed. Foreign territory, too. Our two heroines, Rona and Cassie (especially Cassie) move through it warily and grumpily. They have '. . . eaten sandwiches in Amsterdam and Gouda, Copenhagen, York, Warsaw, Munich and Lerwick, under trees, in fields, off the side of main roads, on steps to bowling alleys and cinemas and in the shadow of the great organ of Haarlem. It's what we always do. We get no richer, no more sophisticated, no more included.'

They're middle-aged British tourists in awful cardigans and floral dresses, spotted T-shirts, specs and espadrilles, eating awful picnics and bickering and reminiscing and taking endless snaps. They're just on the wrong side of attractiveness, not the sort that might ever be played by Lindsay Duncan.

And yet in the end these are not miniature characters at all. The eccentric sparkle of Janice Galloway's writing brings them magnificently alive. They are funny, thoughtful, bawdy and irreverent. And they grow in stature and understanding as their holiday progresses down the motorways and country lanes, from the Normandy cemeteries to the rural gites, through the cathedrals and museums and fly-blown cafes, and up through France again to where the ferry and the trip back to the office await them.

We follow, fascinated, the progress of these two superficially banal Scotswomen as they find themselves and each other and their pasts and their possible futures and don't, to any noticeable degree, find France. Mayle values are refreshingly absent - Cassie is always aware '. . . of the depth to which this is not your place . . . Not your language, your currency, your carefully gathered collection of survival techniques or any other bloody thing.' The French impinge only when her vague expectations contrast with the kind of people she meets in the kind of places she can afford: tired waiters, seedy landladies, half-hearted dragueurs, unshaven drinkers. 'Bellies over the belts of waistbands, stains on the T-shirts . . . This was short change. Frenchmen were supposed to be suave.'

Rona and Cassie are office colleagues who've been holidaying together for 17 years. Their relationship is affectionate, grumbling, often uneasy, like a long-term marriage without the sex. For Cassie, sex is a collection of snaps of decreasingly satisfactory lovers, an album of tender bawdy and angry memories: Chris, Barry, Richard and Tom refuse to flash back as anything other than the second-raters they always were. Rona's sex life was a brief disaster and far in the past. Is friendship any better? All through the holiday Cassie wonders.

The women are complementary. Rona is outwardly the stronger: taciturn, sensible, it's she who shops, drives, remembers to bring the thermos and travel kettle, takes along maps and guidebooks and Car Maintenance and Healthy Living 40+. Cassie brings Flaubert and Zola and insights and epiphanies. Rona is kind and dependable: they're in France because she promised her Gran she'd get a photo of her Grandad's name on a Great War memorial in Normandy. She brings along two of her Grandad's letters from the trenches, but it's Cassie who gets emotional over the contrast between the pathos of the letters and the dismissive aridity of the guidebook's reference to the war graves. It's Cassie who eventually gets sick of mindlessly following the museum trail: 'I say to hell with military hardware this time. To hell with the complicity of watching tanks and bloody guns and helmets with bullet holes in. To hell with the memorabilia of men knocking lumps out of each other.'

It is Cassie who, towards the end of the holiday, tentatively plans out the way the friendship might possibly continue and expand beyond the bickering and the misunderstandings, the little bullyings and manipulations. Or is it? We are given Cassie's viewpoint all the way through but the novel is not that simple. The relationship is full of subtleties, nothing is quite as it seems. Who is bullying whom? Who is protecting whom? Which woman has the truer insights?

I felt bereft when it ended. I wanted Rona and Cassie, impossibly, to go on driving, sight-seeing, thinking their iconoclastic thoughts on men, youth, age, war, death and each other. I expect they will, in other identities, in Janice Galloway's future novels.

(Photograph omitted)

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