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In a Good Light by Clare Chambers

A happy childhood's a bad start in life - you never get over it

To those searching for intelligent, well-written romantic comedy, Clare Chambers is a diamond in the dust. Her fifth novel follows the pattern laid down in Learning to Swim by describing the development and discoveries of the only sane person in a family of nuts. Her innocents never travel abroad but unearth a rich seam of lunacy lurking in quiet suburban streets; when they find love, it is always after a period of suffering and loss which introduces them to slightly wider horizons bounded by art and class. Esther Fairchild, the narrator of In a Good Light, has more to bear than most, for her beloved elder brother Christian is confined to a wheelchair following a tragic accident. To her shock, he announces he is engaged, and Esther, already disturbed by a chance encounter with the daughter of his former girlfriend, reconsiders a joint past which forms the bulk of the plot.

Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s will absolutely adore this novel. The period feel is so deliciously accurate you can smell the joss-sticks and the damp, the high ideals and low hygiene, and although the satire is gentle, it is the kind Jane Austen would recognise in that it contains real cruelty and selfishness. Two or three impoverished families living in a small community could be tiresome and clichéd in a lesser writer, but are in Chambers's skilful hands a joy, from Esther's best friend Dawn's Mum, who "batters everything" to Grandpa, kleptomaniac and addicted to television shows. Mr and Mrs Fairchild will be horribly, touchingly familiar to many liberal readers. So benign that they dress their children in clothes rejected from charity donations, force them to give up their own presents to the less fortunate, eat loathsomely nutritious food and bring Esther and Christian up in a large shabby house that is literally falling to bits, they are both kind and blind in their virtue. The father is a prison chaplain, and his various "guests" include Donovan, who introduces them to words such as "whore" during a Scrabble game. Christian escapes from the chaos by getting a scholarship to a good school, and Esther, useless at every subject but art, learns how to ape normality by studying his pretty girlfriend Penny and eventually illustrating children's books. And Donovan's experiments in love lead unwittingly to the murderous attack that nearly destroys all their lives.

Esther's forays into love and sanity become something the reader really cares about. Her humility is as unforced as Chambers's wit, which sneaks up on you until you find yourself laughing hopelessly at descriptions of how pebbledash is "like fossilised porridge". Donovan is truly madly deeply sexy in a way that one seldom encounters in modern novels, and wise enough to know that "a happy childhood's a terrible start in life: you'd never get over it." In a Good Light shines with an old-fashioned moral certainty that is as subtle and refreshing as it is unexpected.

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