Faded roses and a dash of Angostura bitters - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Faded roses and a dash of Angostura bitters

High Anglicanism in Hammersmith? Tweeds in Metroland? The aga saga has made it to the city lights. A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99

In 1993 Madeleine St John published a first novel of such charm than any succesor was bound to provoke comments on "the hurdle of the second novel". The Women in Black was set in a 1950s Sydney department store, and its heroines were the uniformed sales staff of that beautifully evoked emporium. For A Pure Clear Light, St John, an Australian now living in London, leaves behind the certainties of that hierarchical and more innocent world for present-day Hammersmith and a middle-class cast with jobs as nebulous as their characters.

In this sly take on English middlebrow fiction, they are as smooth as mannequins who, sensing they are not quite real, converse in dialogue like that of middle-class sitcom, and aspire to be the people in some churchy, risque novel. Flora, a lapsed Catholic, embraces High Anglicanism, a vicar and his wife have a go at being written by Barbara Pym, and handsome twins on leave from a Mary Wesley drop in.

Flora, who has "gone into business with a woman friend importing and selling third world textiles" has been married for 15 years to Simon, a director of TV drama who once dreamed of being "the Jean Renoir de nos jours." These are people who shop at "Horrids" and holiday in gites in the Perigord and use French phrases for emphasis. Their three "bright and beautiful" children are at fee-paying schools. They drink gin in the evenings and it cheers rather than depresses them, and yet they feel something is missing. Simon, who fears the "naffery" of Flora's abandoned faith concedes she may fill the void by becoming an Anglican: "Further than that I'm not prepared to go. Honestly, Flora. I mean it, the Pope and Days of Obligation and plastic Virgin Marys with light bulbs inside them..." Flora laughs and thinks, yes, "it was naff all right", but that is not the whole story, and neither of them wishes to go any deeper. Meanwhile, the vicar's wife, assessing Flora as an "English rose, slightly faded" in "good tweeds" surmises that she will come up with "some absolutely first-rate jumble".

This must be the first time "good tweeds" have had an outing since the heyday of Penguin Crime, and it's nice to see them back. Simon, though, is having an affair with Gillian, a blonde accountant, and is torn between his desire to be with her and his love for Flora and the children who he, perforce, neglects.

The novel is circular in shape, opening as Simon and Gillian are spotted in a brasserie by one of Flora's friends, retracing their affair and concluding with its end. Rose Macauley comes to mind, too, as the spiritual concerns surface from the insouciant prose. This is a stylish clearing of the fence, and if it does not touch the heart as poignantly as the debut, its skill and humour make one anticipate the next one with pleasure.

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