IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
! After the Fair by Jo Riddett, Hamish Hamilton £14.99. What is wrong with the ordinary as a subject for fiction? This question is prompted by Jo Riddett's novel, which deals with nothing more unusual than a regretted adultery, and on the back cover of which the word "ordinary" is to be found twice, with the suggestion that the book transcends it.

After the Fair takes a standard theme: the family reunion which prompts a review of relationships. Events are seen through the eyes of middle-aged, widowed Connie, who must come to terms with her loveless marriage to Oliver, one-time golden boy of the BBC, and with the conduct of her daughter, Rowan, who is having an extra-marital affair.

Connie, as a married woman, also had an affair, and wishes to forget it - although circumstances are forcing the memory upon her. Her brother Gledwyn, for whom she is reluctantly keeping house, has given permission for the village fair to be held on family land again after 30 years. Children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces gather. Village society has again to be encountered. And what is Connie to say to Rowan?

Given this outline, several quite different novels might be written. One of them would take a clear-eyed look at marriage, parenthood, and the tyrannies and betrayals that inhabit family life. Another would skim along the surface, reach for hackneyed phrases, and deliver cosiness. Jo Riddett's novel does both. She can write an impeccable paragraph, and a page later plunge into banality. The tone shifts disconcertingly between the thoughtful and the chatty. The cosiness promised in the opening sentence, "The fair was coming back to Peapod Field", lingers, is apparently dispelled, but hangs about like mist.

Some of the dialogue is so slack it can barely support itself. Riddett is capable of dialogue that is crisp, but whenever strong emotion surfaces the writing falls into a bog, and the characters resort to cries of "Oh - oh!", "Stop - oh, stop!" and the like.

The climactic scene in which Connie confronts her daughter is described in a kind of retrospect that robs it of impact, and the pain and the anger comes from the narrative rather than the dialogue, where it belongs.

The characters are a particularly mixed bag. Those in the foreground have a convincing presence, and the socially brilliant, personally in- adequate Oliver is well and powerfully developed. But the others are like unplayed cards in a pack, making up the numbers, because in a novel about a family reunion there have to be people.

With these shortcomings, it is inevitable that the resolution should bring with it a feeling that a chasm somewhere along the way has not been bridged. Yet it is impossible not to respond to the integrity of this book. It does tell the truth about relationships, although sometimes it tries to tell it too tidily. It has generosity; it is humane.

But because it has these qualities, it dis-appoints in a way it would not if it lacked them. It does not go far enough. It shows us, not the strange in the familiar, but the familiar in the familiar. It gives us the insight we recognise, but we had already formulated it. It makes us feel what it was like to live with Oliver - but the book we want is the one that would make us understand what it was like to be Oliver. It reflects, and does not transmute, the ordinary.

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