Disaster at Cold comfort ferme

Windfall by Helen Stevenson Sceptre, pounds 16.99; Love, death and Wodehousian frogs inform a Frenchified novel. By Louise Doughty
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The Independent Culture
The term "Pinteresque'' has long been a critical by-word for a certain sort of dramatic writing: terse, elliptical, saying a great deal with very few words. I would like to suggest a word which means the diametric opposite as applied to the British (no, English) novel: Brookneresque. Helen Stevenson's second book, Windfall, is a deal too Brookneresque, which is a great pity. At her best, Stevenson demonstrates acute insight into the nuances of human behaviour. At her worst, she is verbose and meandering.

In a French farmhouse, a young woman is convalescing after the death of a lover. Elizabeth is a Brookner character down to her perfect pink fingernails, wafting about in tea dresses like a ''Jamesian heroine, a woman who has allowed herself no feelings''. Her lover, Will, was a man who rolled his shirtsleeves ''D.H. Lawrence- style''. After nine months of mutual passion he has disappeared without trace - until, that is, his ashes turn up at a solicitor's office with a note saying that Elizabeth must scatter them.

The early stages of the book chart their affair, along with Elizabeth's relationship with the handsome, married Mark, who is none too pleased to be abandoned for Will. The first hundred pages are desperately slow and mawkish. Elizabeth has been allowed no feelings, it seems, as a short cut to making her seem enigmatic.

Redemption for this section comes in the form of the narrator, Marguerite, the old lady who owns the farmhouse where Elizabeth is staying. Marguerite is much more fun that her pale guest. She is bitter and funny - and prone to letting almost anybody stay in her house as long as they look like a bona fide emotional disaster area. One by one, more casualties arrive. Aiden Goodman is a schoolteacher on the run from his attraction to one of his pupils, the sluttish but psychic Alicia. Christian is Marguerite's adoptive son, a pavement artist who has picked up a shaven-headed model in Paris who is married to a vicious film director - and so on.

The best sections of the novel are those concerning Aiden, who could be seen as a male equivalent of Elizabeth were it not for the streak of snobbish nastiness which runs through his character. Stevenson is great at nastiness. When Alicia and a school friend giggle at Aiden in the classroom he lifts his head and pretends to be ''insensible to the peck and worry of this tainted little world,'' He is a wonderful character, stiffly unpleasant and horribly convincing.

Throughout the book, there are sudden flashes of intelligence which make it clear that Stevenson has real potential. At night-time, the frogs in Marguerite's garden give out ''irregular chuckles, as though reading Wodehouse tucked up in the flower beds''. In a railway station bar, Mark gulps at a full pint of beer, ''the first gulp of the glass that always looks, thought Elizabeth, like a precaution, to stop things spilling over. There were some things that all men did the same.'' A description of a solicitor trying to mop up the tea he has spilt over his desk is a perfect, set-piece paragraph. The novel is scattered with such gems.

The problems lie in the narrative style and plot construction. The point of view swings wildly from character to character and the reader can never be quite sure why they are hearing from this particular individual at any given time. Towards the end, there is more in the way of event - someone falls down a mountain, a child is conceived. These incidents do not seem at all literal but they don't appear to represent much either - they are neither realistic nor truly symbolic. The overall impression is of an author of undeniable talent who has yet to find the right story to tell.

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