The Bank Holiday weekend from hell is the subject of Blake Morrison's entertaining new novel - a dark little tale about middle-class rivalry and midsummer meltdown. Ian, the book's chippy narrator, has been friends with Ollie and Daisy since university days. Always the "prole" to Ollie's "nob", Ian remembers his friend, now a leading barrister, as "smart, sporty, funny, handsome and popular - the antithesis of me."
Twenty years on, schoolteacher Ian is now married to Em. He continues to be irked by the gulf between the couples and has taken to itemising his grievances: "large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkeston; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua etc) vs Lanzarote (if we're lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; Royal Opera House vs local Odeon; Waitrose vs Morrison". It's a list that he likes to sign off with "golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate, but not much."
Despite this conflicted history, Ian and Em accept their friends' invitation for an August weekend in a remote corner of East Anglia. To Ian's surprise, the rural retreat turns out to be a musty farmhouse riddled with woodworm and decorated with dark prints. The sun-baked countryside proves no less oppressive. "Swallows chizzled overhead, like wires short-circuiting. Occasional swifts too, on their long fuse. The air crackled, as if charged."
It becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Ian is prone to self-delusion, but his barbed and cruelly comic commentary on the assembled house guests - including Ollie and Daisy's morose teenage son, Archie - keep us under his storytelling spell.
Jealousy over Daisy, whom Ian once dated, still rankles, and in a nod to their student days, Ollie and Ian challenge one another to a sporting contest (involving tennis, golfing and cycling) that gains momentum with the shocking news that Ollie has terminal cancer.
This assured story of macho posturing takes an increasingly sinister turn as Ian's journey from jealousy to out-and-out madness accelerates. The portrayal of Ian's descent - including a rape scene which he almost passes off to the reader as love-making - is artfully done. With an ear attuned to metropolitan pretension - modern parenting skills are sent up with gusto - Morrison succeeds in weaving a murderous melodrama that is grounded in the most recognisable of human impulses and desires.