Independent choice: Fiction's coming home

Pick of the week Chain Reaction by Gillian White
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The Independent Culture
Spring is heralded in publishing by an outbreak of novels with watercolour covers and mild titles. Their themes are downbeat: divorce; bed death; have we done the best thing for the children?; is that all there is? The implied effect is of a soothing pastille, but these products are not indistinguishable.

Gillian White's Chain Reaction (Orion, pounds 16.99) is structured in segments, using the bright idea of a house-buyers' chain. Assorted locales and very different lives collide as everyone relocates. There's Irene, a feisty pensioner about to be turfed into an old people's home with the help of a daughter who talks like a government form. Joy and Vernon are pillars of neat Eighties aspiration, until one is driven to murder. The Middletons are an unassuming brood until their son is done on a trumped-up rape charge. In her anatomy of criminal injustice and media hysteria, White is impassioned, but never lets up on satire.

A bunch of aristocrats and their flunkies are juxtaposed with a vegetating rock star and his tough rock chic, Belle. Chain Reaction draws clever comparisons between status-led dynasties, and the culpability of new and old wealth. In her poignant and hilarious portrait of the adorable nitwit Arabella, and Janice the "subnormal" rape victim, White illustrates how irregularity is fiercely policed in the poor but allowed to run free among the privileged.

She has a remarkable empathy with a rich cast of characters. Her broad but sure brushstrokes are stingingly accurate. Melodramatic, and with a generous sweep, Chain Reaction doesn't deserve its dreary cover: a Next Casuals woman walking away from a mansion. It's as if the publishers have acquired a hot property whose true worth is completely lost on them.

Deborah Moggach's Close Relations (Heinemann, pounds 15.99) focuses more traditionally on the middle classes in crisis. A formulaic tale of three sisters is given a brisk respray of modernity. So Dad gets heart trouble and responds by taking up with a young black nurse. Grandpa and grandson - with their new friends - bump into each other at The Fridge. Maggie, the tomboy of the trio, has a lesbian awakening, and the spinster sister - a hackneyed archetype - gets her married lover's job.

Moggach is a capable example of English fine writing, if that's what you like. While she can achieve poetic resonance, her tendency is to pull herself together and trip along into a breezier style. She often reverts to shorthand: streets are like "a Frank Capra movie", a hunky blacksmith is "Lawrentian", while the sisters - inevitably - are "Chekhovian".

For all the contemporary whiz, the novel's conclusion is strangely old- fashioned. The women finish pretty well as they started, living in a Nineties commune. Most of the men are philandering scoundrels of caddish or "weak" hues. It's probably time for writers to come up with a new angle on the "all men are bastards theme", beyond the adultery dirge.

Male domestic fiction comes in the form of Adrian Mourby's The Four of Us (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 17.99). The men in this novel are blustery and hesitant in the expression of their sexual urges. David, a kindly academic, is married to Helena - deeply into her children, and God, and with a fondness for Edwardian nightgowns. Enter the exuberant Millie, a mean wielder of an electric drill, and prone to hearty exclamations. She's the kind of mate in a skirt that a certain type of Englishman finds a merciful relief from the troubling mysteries of womanhood.

There's a bit of bed-hopping and some worrisome complications about careers and loyalties, but essentially this is a celebration of the good life, which remains so. It's a chamber piece, and the tone is autumnal. But Mourby manages some nice epiphanies on nature and mortality.

A twilight love story set in an old people's home is certainly an unusual idea. This isn't the gruesome place Irene in Chain Reaction is headed for, though. In Zita Adamson's Second Chances (Sceptre, pounds 17.99) The Pines is more like a hotel, with "a drawing-room rather than a TV lounge" and nice young women on hand to fix your hair.

Claire meets Peter. They go for walks, they go to a music festival. Romance blooms, sort of. Claire acts with all the tremulousness of an Anita Brookner heroine on tranquillisers. The fey snobbery and the strained gentility are flecked with unintentional humour: "He had nice teeth, she noticed. Straight and almost certainly his own."

Dictionaries of physical frailty, Claire and Peter have a miserable marriage apiece behind them; you cannot help but wish them well. But there comes a point when you also wonder if Zita Adamson has confused the evocation of tedium with the thing itself, and begin to ponder the futility of sentences that go: "It had rained the previous day as well as the day before that ..."

Is there no end to laborious realism? Only Gillian White in Chain Reaction shows any awareness that novels should be about anything else except writing stuff down and giving it a shape. There is something doughtily British about this spring collection. You don't enter a different dimension, you aren't transported, you aren't required to think - you just sit down and have a cup of tea and biscuits.