Something wicked

Carol Birch savours sliced Kiwis; Proud Garments by Barbara Anderson, Cape, pounds 14.99

At the beginning of Proud Garments, three elderly people sit in mutual disaffection, throwing out the odd barbed comment, thinking their separate thoughts and contemplating the petty irritations of life. The effect is of a kind of New Zealand One Foot in the Grave, light in tone but with a sharp bite. Nothing about this quiet opening prepares us for the shock of the book's end, a tragedy of savagely unfair proportions recounted with deadpan control.

Barbara Anderson is a clever, leisurely writer; she plants numerous early seeds which germinate slowly and spread relentlessly, shooting out unexpected tendrils like a complicated vine. Rosa and Henry, "tanned and wrinkled like two connubial old kippers", have been happily married for 30 years. Into their comfortable home comes Rosa's younger sister Bianca, widowed and penniless after a lifetime in Hampshire. Supercilious and critical, a vicious if rather pathetic cuckoo in the nest, she awaits her "things" from England. Further complications arrive in the affable guise of Rosa and Henry's spoiled son, the thrusting entrepreneur-cum-scrounger Rufus, and his partner Gaby, beautiful, parasitic and hard as nails.

What follows is a dark comedy of deceit and counter-deceit, Machiavellian in its twists and turns, in which Henry allows himself to be blackmailed on two fronts: first by Bianca into buying a dilapidated house for the three newcomers to do up, then by Rufus into signing the title of the house over to him. For Henry has skeletons in his cupboard, and the fact that their ultimate revelation turns out to be less than catastrophic only increases the irony. Misunderstandings abound. Bianca is desperate for a haven; Rufus is ambitious but weak, Macbeth to Gaby's awesome Lady Macbeth, a pitiless operator who sees life in terms of cash and ownership and wouldn't bat an eyelid about turning poor old Auntie Bee out on her ear. Agendas do not conflict so much as bound towards collision. Caught in the centre of this web is innocent Rosa, who just wants her family to be happy.

This is complex, but such is the writer's skill, so smooth the progression from page to page, that the reader is left with an impression of simplicity. Anderson is a subtle and intelligent writer with a distinctive style, a combination of wittily observed mundane detail, razor-sharp characterisation and a light symbolism that flickers ominously throughout the pages. A dead bird rots on the path, a branch taps at the window; "something something this way comes," misquotes Rosa. Something wicked, indeed.

Anderson is also very funny, and her descriptions are acute. Here is Gaby in a very public display of affection for Rufus: "making tentative little extensions of lips and tongue, coming at him from the side, above, below, like a male spider aware of the life-threatening aspects of courtship". More than simply a description of an embrace, it speaks volumes about Gaby, and is typical of the book's rich multi-dimensional quality. Nothing is pat or stereotypical. Even when exposing the worm in the rose of Henry and Rosa's perfect marriage, Anderson defies fashionable cynicism and allows it to survive, strengthened by the cold light of truth.

Barbara Anderson did not start writing till she was in her sixties. She brings a considerable wisdom to the craft, combining generosity and tenderness with an unflinching eye. To the last line, her story and characters continue to reveal themselves.

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