The Good Mayor, by Andrew Nicoll

A bearded female saint is the perfect narrator for this original love story
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The Independent Culture

Near the end of The Good Mayor, the narrator confesses that "this story is much more about the telling than the things that happen in it". It's an apt observation because a quick reviewer's résumé of the plot makes the novel sound a lot less than it is. Tibo Krovic is the mayor of the city of Dot, somewhere on the Baltic coastline. He's a good man, liked, respected, but single, lonely and lovelorn. His secretary, the beautiful Agathe Stopak, is trapped in a loveless marriage with a cold, drunken husband. Tibo longs for Agathe, and Agathe is keen on him, too.

Eventually, Tibo plucks up the courage to ask Agathe to lunch and they begin a gentle, chaste affair, a Baltic Brief Encounter. Unfortunately, after a misunderstanding, Agathe is thrown into the arms of her husband's cousin Hektor, a dissolute artist. So emerges a Hardyesque scenario, the heroine caught between three men with Hektor in the Alec D'Urberville role.

The story is told by Walpurnia, Dot's 1,200-year-old patron saint (who prayed for – and received – ugliness and a beard so that she would remain pure), Her statues and images are everywhere: she's a genuinely omnipresent, omniscient narrator. Her tale-telling is light, quirky and deceptively simple, but often rises to considerable descriptive power. Dot's history is kept as vague as its geographical location, but though we're never told the timing of the story, the feel is of the 1950s. Dot is on the River Ampersand, a ferry runs to the island of Dash, and there's a nearby rival city named Umlaut. It's the telling that matters, so, fittingly, the geography is composed of language.

Walpurnia's story rattles around the literary fantasy city like one of Dot's trams. It brings in a kindly Italian restaurant proprietress with second sight, a magical abandoned theatre, benevolent, ghostly circus performers, and an eccentric corpulent lawyer with a pet pangolin (look it up; I did). As the story gathers pace towards the denouement, the MacGuffins do pile up rather steeply. But if the tale loses a bit of credibility, keep faith with St Walpurnia and focus on the telling. The cover of Andrew Nicoll's debut novel comes splattered with commendations from various worthies. That kind of in-built praise can heap pressure on an untried novel but, happily, The Good Mayor can bear the load.