Mugged by an angel

Something About Women PH Newby

Andr Deutsch £12.99

Women have always obsessed P H Newby's male protagonists. In The Retreat (1953), the hero is so moved by the unhappiness of a friend's wife that he chooses to elope with her rather than to return to his own, whom he genuinely loves. In his last novel, Coming In With The Tide, so intense are the hero's emotions for both his wife and their maid that he finds himself in a mnage trois. And at the centre of this latest novel is a retired clergyman and Oxford don, Owen Bark, whose belief in the innate moral superiority of women over men is so strong that he must oppose their ordination. They are too good, he feels, for the priestly task. As a well-known religious columnist, his opinion counts: not only is his opposition deep-seated intuitively, but it has, he thinks, intellectual foundation. Weren't women the only witnesses and comforters of Christ's agony on the cross?

It's odd that Owen Bark should feel this way because his experience of women has not been happy. His wife, Margaret, whom he loved, left him for an American science-fiction writer, and even though she has lived on the other side of the Atlantic for many years, her contempt for him is still a factor in his life. Scarcely less contemptuous is his sister, Eleanor, a termagant who never loses an opportunity of putting him down. In one scene, in Oxford's Botanical Gardens, Owen suffers a minor heart attack while pondering woman's natural excellence. An unknown girl arrives, but instead of doing as he expects and playing the ministering angel, she robs him. In addition, to all this Mrs Thatcher is presiding over the country.

Impeccably crafted, as are all Newby's novels, Something About Women takes an unforeseen direction. But surprise is a feature of Newby's art; for all their clarity and conventional narrative technique, his books are fictive correlatives for life's unpredictability. This novel is not the straightforward account of Owen's journey to some change of heart one might expect. Owen is indeed central to the book, but for much of its course we have no direct access to him. Rather he is the principal instrument in a quintet, consisting of Owen's daughter, Charlotte, whom he's scarcely seen; Daniel, her American husband; Tomas, Daniel's illegitimate son by a Czech woman, who is a political exile unable to get the theatre work he would like; and Margaret, who reluctantly returns to her own country during Charlotte's pregnancy.

Each of these characters, instrument counterpointing instrument, reacts on the others. And behind them all stand two other presences, Charlotte and Daniel's child, unborn for most of the novel, (what kind of world is he going to inherit?) and what one can only call (in a Protestant sense) God's Grace. It is this that Charlotte, though cocooned by the rich lifestyle her husband has brought her, comes to feel as her constant attendant; it is this that her mother, Margaret, tries to frustrate and deny.

In a 1960 lecture, Newby stressed the importance of the form's retrospective nature; it deals with something already over. As readers of Something about Women, we know that women are ordained now, whatever the views of dissident journalists, that Mrs Thatcher departed, that the Velvet Revolution happened in Tomas's country, and that Reagan's phrase "Evil Empire" is already in the history books. This gives a special and a very moving dimension to the dilemmas of the characters: we see them striving for goals whose illusory or attainable nature only we can know. But their ambivalencesremain ambivalences, even though the patina of time might already make them appear otherwise.

Something About Women is a work of concentrated imagination and an altogether rare and unsentimental compassion. Let's hope it will bring about the revaluation that Newby's uvre so amply deserves.