INDEPENDENT CHOICE

RURAL RIDES : Pick of the week; The Sunlight on the Garden by Fanny Frewen

English village life provides the backdrop for three new novels this month, its enclosed nature a foil for dramas ranging from the romantic and fanciful to the darkly claustrophobic and exquisitely subtle.

Sue Prideaux's debut, Rude Mechanicals (Abacus, pounds 8.99), is an odd concoction of black humour, cool irony and sentimentality. Lucy and Peter Skeffington are a gentrified couple approaching middle age by means of a growing communication gap. This polite rift centres upon Peter's unspoken desire for, and Lucy's instinctive resistance to, the adoption of Danny, inmate of a highly improbable local home for young offenders. So hellish is this place, with its repulsive "guardian" and his sadistic henchman, so innocent is Danny, with his Oliver Twist air and wistful questions ("where does the wind come from?"), that we are reminded of Dickens. The comparison is compounded by the fanciful nature of the characters playing out their interlinked dramas around the central axis. The vicar's crook-backed companion obsesses over animal rights, whispering mantra-like his favourite word ("utensil utensil") to calm his nerves. The garage owner is a religious maniac who insists on all family names being drawn from the Bible, and whose granddaughters are called Jezebel and Salome.

For the most part, Sue Prideaux juggles her extensive cast with skill; her dry, at times acrid, humour and sudden glimpses of the pit balance the full-blown romance of Danny, the pure soul adrift in an evil world.

Romance of a more traditional kind is on offer in Katie Fforde's Stately Pursuits (Michael Joseph, pounds 9.99). When Hetty Longden goes to house-sit great-uncle Samuel's crumbling stately home she finds herself drawn into a fight to save the old house from the philistine plans of Samuel's heir, who wants to sell the site to developers. Unlike Prideaux's grotesques, these villagers are a friendly bunch. Mrs Hemstead, formidable matriarch with a heart of gold, makes damson wine and is a dead ringer for Miss Hubbard in Postman Pat. The local Brownie pack leader has the looks of a supermodel and, conveniently, a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) lives only a dog's walk away.

Will Hetty succumb to his "perfect son-in-law" charms? Or will she fall for dreaded heir Connor Barrabin, dubbed by the villagers Conan the Barbarian? The midnight arrival of this craggy, bear-like man and his subsequent enforced cohabitation with Hetty herald a prolonged drama of barbed sparring, spiced with sexual chemistry. This lacks entirely the element of tension, as, from the moment we discover that for all his taciturn rumblings he's a dab hand in the kitchen, it's a foregone conclusion that she'll end up in his masterful but sensitive embrace.

The fictional village of Swanmere in Fanny Frewen's The Sunlight on the Garden (Century, pounds 15.99) is an altogether more believable place inhabited by believable people. Gentle, kindly Marion, whose childless state is her enduring regret, has been married for 20 years to Jeremy, who commutes to a willing mistress and a good job in the City. Marion keeps an immaculate house and throws perfect, elegant dinner parties. She has, however, a retreat, her "strange place": a wild garden below the proper garden, where growth runs unchecked. Only the children of her neighbours, the Fenbys, had shared this with her throughout their childhood. When an anniversary party brings the four grown children back to Swanmere, the scene is set for a poignant drama of infidelity, reconciliation and acceptance. Peter, the eldest Fenby son, unhappily drifting into a loveless marriage, embarks on an affair with Marion. Totally infatuated and quietly desperate, he watches the inexorable process of his own wedding plan as if it were a natural phenomenon beyond his control. When Marion becomes pregnant, having taken her own infertility for granted for three years, she allows her husband to believe the child is his. The two draw closer, reaffirming their marriage.

Truth breaks through, however, in an unexpected and moving way. Fanny Frewen's clear, dispassionate prose never falters, its restraint adding depth and dignity to the moments of passion and pain. Situations and characters are complex, nothing is predictable and Frewen eschews the easy options of fictional convention to create a sense of the real messiness of life. She celebrates the value of compromise and the courage ordinary people find within themselves to survive and find meaning in situations that are less than perfect.

She has been called "the new Mary Wesley" but the comparison seems to be based on little more than generational factors. Fanny Frewen has her own individual voice.

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