At Home with Miss Vanesa, by E A Markham

Island of charm and dreams
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The Independent Culture

This is another unclassifiable gem of a book from EA Markham. Fictionalised memoirs? A comic novel? Something of both, held together in the same tricky, digressive and witty style as his Meet Me in Mozambique. Some of the same cast, too: Pewter Stapleton, the ageing academic, and his old friend and sparring partner, Michael Carrington. But also a whole new raft of characters who revolve around Miss Vanesa and make up her reading group, most returned from London or Paris or Boston to their native Caribbean island.

Pewter is invited to address them on a return visit. The group talk about men, England, reading and how to speak correctly. There is a constant and very funny clash between island speech and standard English. The talk cuts between speakers and, as in life, people hear and misunderstand, and do not hear but somehow understand. Back in England, Pewter thinks of Miss Vanesa, and wonders what she has been up to in her jacuzzi with Michael Carrington on his visit. Arwell Barnes, self-appointed male president of the Returnees' Club, thinks of Pewter and sends him unanswered e-mails.

Arwell's other main line of thought is fond imaginings of Condoleezza Rice in the role of dominatrix, whip in hand. He is determined to marry Condi, and mentally whittles down prospective rivals to leave himself as the only serious candidate. He scandalises the Club by writing marriage proposals on their headed notepaper. Pewter is preparing to leave for Paris, and fantasises about entertaining Miss Vanesa there.

This is only a small taste of the book. Time and viewpoint shift effortlessly between characters. Their voices are caught perfectly, as in the description of a hurricane by a woman Pewter has interviewed, "because the wind wicked, the wind fling one big-size girl up at Hill and stick the girl to one post up there". The book recalls Ladbroke Grove in the 1950s, a 1970s socialist building co-operative in the Alpes Maritimes, the volcanic eruption that wrecked the island of Montserrat (Pewter's native "St Caesare", and Markham's birthplace), and comes bang up to date with Wayne Rooney's metatarsal. At Home With Miss Vanesa is a very clever and immensely warm book - not qualities often yoked together in modern fiction.

William Palmer's 'The India House' is published by Vintage

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