In hot water at the Copper Kettle

THE ORCHARD ON FIRE by Shena Mackay, Heinemann pounds 12.99

With more than half a dozen acclaimed novels under her belt, Shena Mackay is a writer in her prime: at the height of her powers, possessed of experience, perceptions and contradictions that might elude a greener artist. In her hands, words are spiked, crunchy, fraught with super-sensory meaning: her authorial presence on the page is close to necromantic.

It's with a slightly sinking heart, then, that you pick up her latest book and note that it is another of those Novels About A Fifties Childhood. Mackay is an incredibly vivid, empathic writer. I would believe just about anything she chose to tell me. (Isn't this the power a novelist craves?) And it's not that this book doesn't ring true. It's just that I'd like her to tell me something I don't already know.

It's Coronation year and eight-year-old April's Mum and Dad boldly leave the Streatham smog to run the Copper Kettle Tearoom in Kent. Rural idyll, however (inevitably), it ain't. Despite wild flowers on every table and plaster knickerbocker glories that look "more delicious than the real thing", the tearoom's mostly empty. In fact its most frequent customer is the equally false, searingly sinister Clement Greenidge, whose dachshund's jumping claws leave "swelling pink weals" on the children's legs. The image is acute: Mackay's novel is fundamentally about children's pain, hurt and despair - the damage inflicted by adults in acceptable guise.

"Some of us are trying to make some social headway in this village," says April's Mum - and Stonebridge is a seething comic creation, ablaze with horse-brasses and pickled eggs and all the expected weirdnesses of post-war rural life. When Stonebridge people go to the cinema, they see the end of the film first, so as not to miss the last bus home. There are Bronnley Lemons and Payne's Poppets, Truffle and Nougat chocolates and individual fruit pies. Stodgy people in raincoats talk about each other but still get nowhere near the truth, and say "Never mind" and "All in good time" and "I could murder a cup."

April's parents are loving enough, but preoccupied with social propriety, the Copper Kettle and a new baby. Paralysed by a desire to please the adults around her, April is forced to have endless teas with the scheming Greenidge who is, of course, the epitome of dashing respectability in her parents' unsuspecting eyes.

One child-abuser is much like another and there's nothing new or surprising about Greenidge, but he's still an accurate and chilling concoction. Explosively self-righteous, guilty beyond measure, he's a sexual predator who knows how to charm parents, a con-man whose wheedling conversations with April are emotional blackmail disguised as affection. Dodging his invalid wife, allowing April to shoulder the massive burden of his "love", he furtively masturbates himself to climax in her presence and then just as abruptly sends her away.

Meanwhile, April's best friend, the fiery, red-haired Ruby, daughter of the local publican, is, if anything, an even more dangerously abused child. Deprived, neglected and beaten by her parents (never prosecuted because no one in Stonebridge wants to believe the worst) she finally runs away.

When April stands by Ruby, refusing to tell where she is, the result is a rare moment of violence from April's normally benign father. This single slap momentarily aligns the two girls, but one suspects that acknowledging it robs April of more innocence than all the more obviously abusive encounters with Greenidge. The message is clear. Adults are inconsistent and untrustworthy, children can survive only by suppressing themselves, hiding, refusing to speak, concealing the truth. Failed by those who should care for them, they find no safety, no respite. There's an eerie, moving bravado in Ruby's final bid for freedom, despite the fact it almost turns sour, almost causes her death.

Mackay's novel knows exactly where it's going, what it's doing: its psychology is accurately mapped, sharp and clean. Her prose is flawlessly seductive and comic, confidently wry and sensual. Phrases startle with their lush, awesome originality. A baby's cry is "an orange coloured paper concertina"; coming upon the terrible Greenidge suddenly and unexpectedly is like "walking down a sunny lane and seeing a dead bird in your path".

And yet ... I'm unamazed. Is it just that the descriptions appear too easy, the novel appears to enjoy itself too much? There was nothing sufficiently uncomfortable to be challenging. I wasn't transported. I've been here far too many times. April and Greenidge are already in so much of 20th- century art (the new Et In Arcadia Ego), playing out their sad little tableau in some apparently green and sunny, apparently comfy, retro location.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam