Dry Martinis and delicious hats

Kate Saunders is entranced by Penny Perrick's naughty heroine
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Impossible Things

by Penny Perrick

Bantam, pounds 15.99

The cover is a pastel splodge, the heroine has purple eyes, and that is the end of the bad news. If the heart sinks on page one of Penny Perrick's , it rises by page two. Packaged as the usual tosh, this excellent piece of popular fiction confounds our expectations.

Zanna Gringrich, with her ginger hair, mauve peepers and guttural voice, is a milliner of genius. We meet her on a dismal day just after the last war, in the Bond Street salon she bought for a song during the blitz. Among the ruins of London, she shines in Dior's New Look - brought to her in the diplomatic bag, by one of her Free French bonks.

A diplomatic bag Zanna is not. "I loved the war," she tells a ragged upper-class customer, while cheerfully dispensing Free French champers in Bakelite mugs. Married to a boring solicitor named Raymond, mother of a young daughter, Zanna has spent Britain's finest hour on her back, having a whale of a time. She is a very naughty girl - selfish and grasping, a terrible wife and mother. For the reader, she is terrific company: "a woman sharpened by desire, all edges, without shame."

The point about Zanna is that she wants . She expects life to be about fun, while her dull, repectable Jewish relations expect it to be about duty - baking, babies and bridge. The hats say it all, with names like "Hope Is The Thing With Feathers"- how surprised old Emily Dickinson would be, to see her line inspiring a confection of glittering frivolity.

This particular hat, bought by an aristocratic old lady named Leonora Fitzhaven, brings Zanna the love of her life. Leonora's adored nephew, Harry Welliver, is the youngest member of the new, hopeful Labour government. He is a tweedy idealist, convinced he knows what is best for the poor souls in his East End constituency. Fun it is not - when Harry's revolution arrives, it will be hygenic and badly dressed. Amazingly, as postwar prosperity picks up, he is not exactly killed in the rush of takers.

Zanna knows what people really want. "Nylons and eyebrow pencils," she tells Harry, "not bloody state industries." She is an insouciant Cassandra, cheerfully predicting the death of the socialist brave new world in a welter of television sets and three-piece suites.

In his idealistic way, Harry is as single-minded and selfish as Zanna. I think we are supposed to imagine a sort of Tony Benn figure, with a vast prong and oodles of sex-appeal. They are a matching pair, but their passionate alliance has unpleasant repercussions in their two families. Harry has a ghastly older brother named Gomer, who hates socialists and Jews. He has inherited the family mansion at Utley Manor, a miserable Shropshire slum, and he seethes with resentment of the working classes in their heated bungalows.

Fraternal jealousy leads to tragedy and separation. Meanwhile, dame fashion is turning her back on hats, and the Labour government is quickly forgetting its postwar values. Both Zanna and Harry must struggle to survive in a changing world.

Witty, zestful and beautifully observed, is a gorgeous piece of escapism, with just the right measure of reality, like the twist of bitter lemon in a Martini.