Books: Heartache revisited

DON'T ASK ME WHY by Tania Kindersley, Sceptre pounds 10

It's a tricky thing - writing about Oxbridge these days. You either have to encrypt it in false names so that no one notices, or satirise it so viciously that no one cares. You'd certainly never, ever want to write a "those-halcyon-days-weren't-they-just-the-thing", Evelyn Waugh Revisited.

Mystifyingly, for the first half of her new novel, Tania Kindersley does just that. The plot centers around a group of friends at Oxford in the mid-Eighties, the kind of group which only ever exists in books or films, who are always together and who all have irritating and improbable names like Gus, Virge, Etta and Stretch. They wander about in full-length fur coats, call each other "my dear" or "darling", fall "helplessly in love" with their wizened old dons, have large rooms in quads decorated with "a bust of Voltaire and two fat stone urns ... a Portugese tapestry carpet ... chairs which looked like Chippendale and an eighteenth century card table", throw dinner parties with "proper china and real cooked food and good wine," and airily say things like: "my dearest dears ... how like Noel Coward you all look."

Coming-of-age books need a healthy pinch of retrospective irony and there is a baffling and frustrating lack of it here. The book is about the loss of youth and the disillusion suffered by growing up into "the real world". It's hard to empathise with their later nostalgia for this bizarre, pretentious, Bloomsbury group throw-back because no one remotely sane would ever want to have lived it.

She does capture well the insecurity, the search for identity that goes along with that stage of life. The book's central preoccupation is Ash's friendship with a girl called Virge. Ash, the narrator, is quiet, watchful, slightly shy and constantly reiterates that "I didn't know what I was yet ... I was still casting about, wondering." When she first meets the flamboyant and self-assured Virge, she finds her instantly and mesmerically addictive because "things came easy to Virge. I envied her that, although I didn't resent it ... with her strange hair and her tiny clothes ... I could see at once she deserved it, and I wanted to sit close to it, this easiness, as if some of it might rub off on me."

Halfway through, as the group leave Oxford, the book gets so much better that it's difficult to reconcile the two halves. The fabric of their carefully constructed lives is, of course, unravelled by the harsher realities of heartache, jobs, separation and even death. When her writing is screwed down by emotional particulars, and she's not casting about for adjectives for that perfect party in Christ Church Meadows, Kindersley's language is acute, discomforting and scalpel-sharp. When Ash's boyfriend leaves her, "it didn't make any sense. I had heard about hearts aching, but no one had told me that it doesn't hurt in the heart at all, not in the chest, that it feels like someone has punched you and slapped you and then kicked you in the stomach." The death of Virge's brother is handled with the same raw, outraged disillusion.

Kindersley is good at tragedy. She should give that perfection lark a miss.

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