Introducing the compassionate Ann Widdecombe

The Clematis Tree by Ann Widdecombe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £9.99)

Who is the best novelist sitting in Parliament today? In the Lords, the deeper talent-pool of life peers means that the question might have a point. Melvyn Bragg, PD James and Ruth Rendell could each stake a claim. In the Commons, however, we come back down to earth - and a scattering of MPs who have perpetrated corny potboilers or youthful indiscretions. Chris Mullin, now the scourge of Barclays but once a fiery backbencher with a creditable line in political thrillers, should probably lead this plodding field.

Now he has a competitor with ambitions for a long-haul literary career. Is Ann Widdecombe's first, unremittingly bleak family saga as dismal as some readers might assume? Not exactly; or rather, its routine flaws come within a surprising, even perplexing, frame.

Miss Widdecombe writes a stodgy meat-and-potatoes prose, and confines her gaze to a narrow segment of the middle classes. She doesn't do sex, she goes in for fortitude, and she heartily approves of nuns. Hot news, eh?

But consider what actually happens. Accountant Mark and his wife Claire have their comfy life dragged through the mangle when their four-year-old, Jeremy, runs in front of a speeding car. Paralysed, with severe brain-damage, the boy becomes their Calvary. Time and again, their marriage almost breaks under the strain. In clumsy flirtations and fantasies, Mark dreams of "playing away" with other women. Poor Claire simply goes on the odd shopping binge.

Yet their burdens have to do with feelings, not finance. This is the lamest cop-out. The wealth of Claire's scrap-dealing Yorkshire dad means that the couple never face the sheer material desperation that 99 per cent of such parents will confront. To that extent, this book remains, for all its lavish misery, a Tory fairy story.

Not entirely, though. What's truly weird is not its easily bought stoic moral, but the point of view. We see this grim tale through Mark's eyes: an agnostic with a Jewish mother, who distrusts his wife's social pretensions and even keeps his distance from her vehement right-wing politics - "passionately, and perhaps, intolerantly, Conservative". Claire emerges as an uptight snob who refuses to send Jeremy to a council-run centre alongside kids called Kylie or Dean; Mark as the average sensual, but reasonable, man. In short, this novel's central consciousness - masculine, liberal, sceptical - is not what the name on the cover might lead you to expect.

An ambiguous sub-plot revolves around Claire's high-flying MP sister, Sally, and her bid to introduce a bill legalising euthanasia. Even here, various twists ensure that there's precious little right-to-life tub-thumping in the text. As for any other clear political message - well, given the frequency with which high-speed vehicles smash up young lives in The Clematis Tree, it might as well be calling for a total ban on the internal combustion engine.

Jeremy dies in a painless accident, leaving Mark - before a last-gasp change of heart - to dread the future of his moribund marriage as "empty years of duty and pretence". Yet his son's short life has allowed others to show love and loyalty; just like the stunted tree in someone's garden, around which a glorious climber blooms. Hence that horticulturally unfeasible title.

Passive and powerless himself, Jeremy enables others to do good. Wordsworth has a wonderful poem on this very subject, in which abject need permits luckier souls to show "their kindred with a world where want and sorrow are". Entitled "The Old Cumberland Beggar", it argues that mendicant strangers at our gate should prompt a "needed kindness". This teaching chimes perfectly with the theme and tone of this compassionate novel. It can be beautiful "to live for others passively", as a trigger for their altruism, comments one of Mark's not-quite-girlfriends. It hardly needs to be said that all this flatly contradicts the spiteful claptrap against asylum seekers we often hear from the woman who holds the post of Shadow Home Secretary.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat