D'Angerous liaisons

Margaret Drabble being snide about reviewers? Tut-tut, says Hugo Barnacle; The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble, Viking, pounds 16
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At the outset of her new novel, Margaret Drabble writes: "Begin on a midsummer evening... Let us say that we are in England, in Hampshire." As Aristotle showed, either we are or we aren't. Let us not muck about.

The first scene is a dinner party, and although the setting is meant to be contemporary, there is a curious timewarp effect. The well-heeled company are playing the "Just Society" game, where they have to pick the kind of world they would like to be born into if they didn't know their social position in advance. These bourgeois post-prandial guilt-trips were such a staple of literary fashion in the age of flares, Austin Allegros and brown corduroy modular sofa units that it really does feel quite strange in a brand new book.

Perhaps in reality Drabble is not so much out of date as out of ideas. A successful middle-aged man and his successful middle-aged sisters are worried that their brilliant but batty old mother, the "witch" of the title, is going to squander their inheritance. Nina Bawden's Family Money has dealt with similar themes in rather better style. There are also overtones of Barbara Vine, and some skeletons in the family closet which bear a strong resemblance to those Drabble has rattled at us before, in The Radiant Way .

The writing shows ambition, but not the inspiration to match. The word "palimpsest", a common symptom of this complaint, appears as early as page 18, when Nathan, an adman married to one of the sisters, takes a walk to look at the countryside. In his mind, "The rural England of advertising is superimposed on the palimpsest of the England of Hampshire in the 1990s." It is doubtful that you can logically superimpose something on a palimpsest any more than you can dilute water, but the aim is to work the ghastly word in somewhere, anywhere, for its ready-made posh-prose associations.

Drabble produces a troublingly high number of these lines that announce their own cleverness but do not supply it. Describing the vast and hideous house where Frieda the "witch" lives in remotest Devon, the narrator asks, "What folly had built this folly here...?" For noticing that madness and an extravagant building can both be referred to by the word "folly", nul points.

Frieda walks through her overgrown grounds, "this wracked and rent, this Rackham woodland". The allusion to the great illustrator helps us to visualise the scene and ties in with fairytale parallels elsewhere, but the chiming sound of "wracked" makes it all embarrassingly self-conscious and the suggestion of "rackrent" is a complete irrelevance. There are no landlord- tenant relations involved.

Nathan's mother, meanwhile, doesn't like him living in his trendy South Bank block because there's an E in the postcode, an ugly reminder of the East End their Jewish family worked hard to escape from. We are told she "hasn't moved with the times. She won't even eat food with an E in it." Surely a preoccupation with E-numbered food additives is as neurotically modern as you can get?

David D'Anger, a suave Guyanese academic married to another of the sisters, is repeatedly described, because of his dazzling powers of persuasion, as "dangerous". You see it coming the instant Drabble introduces him, but that doesn't make it any easier to bear.

Will Paine, a character intended to be catalytic but really just peripheral, is half-Jamaican and, we are told, "too nice-looking to be pure-bred English. The pure-bred English are a motley, mottled, mongrel ugly breed, blotched with all the wrong pigments, with hair that does not do much for them at all. The English are clumsy and gross and at the same time runtish. They do not make the best of themselves. Their bodies are thick, their faces are either pinched and beaky like mean birds or shapeless as potatoes." Is Drabble speaking for herself here? She doesn't seem to be speaking for David Niven, Cary Grant, Vivien Leigh or Julie Christie. And "pure- bred English" is a stupidly racist contradiction in terms.

Nearing the end, the narrator says, "We are nearing the end. Soon we can go for the kill. Indeed, for the overkill...There will be one or two deaths, but not many." So, not an overkill at all, then. Not exactly Operation Gomorrah or anything.

Readable enough in its second half, once the action belatedly starts, the novel nevertheless contains a quantity of snide remarks about book reviewers, invariably a sign that the author is conscious of failure and expects bad notices. May Drabble soon return to form.