Little, Brown, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Hive, By Gill Hornby

This tale of school-gate dramas and rivalries carries the sting of truth – but it's far from sweet

The school gate is the modern equivalent to the village well, and Gill Hornby has chosen it for the setting of her first novel. St Ambrose Primary School is the place where a group of mums meet not only to deposit their children each term but to gossip, fund-raise, and socialise. As any mother will know, what looks like a benign, sisterly forum is often anything but, and thanks to Beatrice, the queen bee of the hive, the prevailing spirit is more Mean Girls than Desperate Housewives.

Structured around the school year, from autumn to autumn, and between "drop-off" and "pick-up", the group moves through personal challenges and crises. Rachel, the most engaging, is a writer and illustrator of children's books dumped by her husband; her mortification and misery help her to keep her distance – but so does being dropped by Bea.

A rich "newbie", Bubba, who has moved her child from private to state sector, annoys everyone by showing too much enthusiasm, and is humiliated when the winter fund-raising ball in her pretentious home goes horribly wrong. Georgie, the only one who still has sex with her husband, a farmer, lives in insouciant squalor after giving up her job as a lawyer. Heather, fat and frumpy, gets a makeover and is taken up by Bea. But what is the attractive, glamorous Melissa doing in the mix, and which of the women will hook up with the sexy new headmaster?

The lives of mothers is an aspect of contemporary existence which writers of the calibre of Helen Simpson, Alison Lurie and Rachel Cusk have carved out as their own. What seems familiar and unremarkable becomes anything but when examined attentively, especially through the eyes of women who have enjoyed the autonomy of a career. Yet those who have abandoned bread-winning for child-rearing can also find, like Georgie, that "life now was one of pure, fine, distilled creativity" that brought "a depth of satisfaction she had never before known".

In the "happy family" of St Ambrose, women find their time poisoned by rivalries and cliques, but the difficulties of combining motherhood with earning a living are not explored. Whether or not they are fat or have large kitchens may strike a chord, though not, perhaps, with many whose children are at state schools. However, plenty will identify with the phenomenon of the "Queen Bee", and Hornby skewers her with venom.

In between, she notices how children begin the school year "trimmed and polished and shiny, but the mothers looked about as groomed as Robinson Crusoe", before the situation is reversed; it's a pity there isn't more of this sharp, sympathetic observation as it plays to the author's strengths. The nicknaming of herbal tea as "lesbian", and reference to gay women (even in the school quiz) might have been expected to blossom into an interesting sub-plot, given how fixated the women are on Bea's appearance, but remains unexplored.

As the success of Mumsnet shows, thousands, if not millions of mothers do need each other's help, advice, sympathy and support to survive the trials of raising young children. Alas, the women here are too poorly defined to offer us consolation or even laughter. It's hard to remember whether Georgie or Heather is the outspoken one, and both Heather and Rachel seem to find only babies rather than children delightful. Their husbands are vague presences or absences, yet we are supposed to care that one meets a shocking end.

Even more surprising is the lack of individuation of their children, around whom the lives of these mothers are supposed to revolve. The abiding impression is of a group of women more preoccupied with makeovers, Pilates and competitive lunching menus than anything else. They probably exist, but whether any reader would choose them for company is another matter.

Amanda Craig's novels include 'Hearts and Minds', and the re-issued 'A Private Place' (Abacus)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent