Firing on all cylinders

Christopher Hawtree relishes a high-speed trip through the treacheries and tribulations of office life today
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The Temp, by Serena Mackesy (Arrow £5.99, 394pp)

The Temp, by Serena Mackesy (Arrow £5.99, 394pp)

IT IS more than 140 years since George Eliot's essay "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" pointed to a "feminine fatuity that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species". Were she still alive, Eliot could add a few paragraphs on the recent boom in novels that are rarely as bright as their fluorescent covers would have us believe.

Millinery ­ whether Ghost or Gap ­ still finds a place but mind has been supplanted by attention to other zones. The object of passion, morever, is never a clergyman but his Nineties equivalent, a stockbroker or adman, who is certainly happy to deliver the goods pre-altar even if, in the event, his performance so often proves as unsatisfactory as the latest wash-and-go shampoo formula.

On the gaudy red face of it, The Temp ­ which began life as a weekly column in The Independent ­ might appear more of the same: braying voices in a sports-car, Fulham bound. But Serena Mackesy's hoot of a first-person narrative is more than a cut above all that. Holed up with a boyfriend and others in a house owned by a childhood friend, Mackesy's temp is far sassier than the women of George Eliot's formula: "take a woman's head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve hot in feeble English".

Mackesy's 400-odd pages whip by in a sitting as the temp contends with jobs across London. Relationships and careers eddy and flow, treachery lurks in the next room, cattiness and concern are in continual flux. All of it is shot through with such observations as that there is only ever time, washing-wise, for "a quick Pits-Tits-Pussy scrub", as well as a magnificient analysis of the adminsistrative cost of ordering fans worth £107.95 ­ £1,279.96.

It all becomes more moving than expected. In response to her account of life at an oil-rig company, one cannot help but outyell any Hooray ­ especially when it comes to the parade-ground wally in charge of the reprographic unit. As for page 348, it makes for perhaps the biggest gasp since A Kiss Before Dying. Here is a Bridget Jones firing ­ or being fired ­ on every cell of her body. Say no more, except ­ more!