In the Gran tradition

FAITH FOX by Jane Gardam, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
JANE GARDAM gets away with writing about the middle classes. She does so through a combination of veracity and wit. She is a principled tease in a tradition whose obvious presiding genius is Jane Austen, though her books have a choppiness of style both within and between themselves that is absolutely unAustenlike.

Something of this tough yet entertaining author's secret must be in her roots. She was born in North Yorkshire and the jacket copy of this novel tells us that she "maintains her links with the north of England". To tell us about it risks an appearance of touristic southernness; the place must matter very greatly to her since it induces this most discreet - with herself - author to run such a risk.

In Faith Fox, Gardam has used the friction between south and north to great effect. This friction, and the alchemical transformations effected by love and death, are the larger themes of a book whose surface is all conversation, comedy.

Faith Fox is the book's heroine in that she unites its protagonists and catalyses its action. Yet she never speaks, restricting herself to a couple of hugely rewarding smiles. She is a new-born baby, the daughter of Holly Fox, all-round brick and general Betjeman girl, who has died in childbirth. Holly is the absent heroine of the book, a presence in death, and a type both susceptible to satire and undeniably decent, in a peculiarly Southern English way. It is Holly's adoring mother, Thomasina, whom we come to know best, until we realise that we can unfold from her vivid presence some notion of what her daughter's character might have been, what her granddaughter's may be.

No matter how much we learn of Faith's antecedents and environment, we can never be confident of what will happen to her. The trickiness of events is reflected by the constantly shifting scenes, from amiable northern geriatric chaos to grisly southern residences called such things as "Spindleberries" and furnished with G&T on tap, from an ashram up on the moors to a society wedding, from preparatory school to chippy. When an author is attempting such a panorama, questions about the state of England, which the contemporary novel is held by some frivolously to ignore, can't be far off. What helps any work with such a preoccupation is of course the delineation either of character or of types writ so large as to be epitomes. In his excellent What A Carve Up!, that also contrasted south and north, Jonathan Coe combined the two with real daring and confidence.

Jane Gardam has taken the more intimate path, giving herself time to set out, wind up and listen to the many characters who carry the book forward from death to birth and rebirth and death again between them. The effect of this is to induce something in the reader that is unusual in a contemporary novel; we feel fondness for almost every character in the book, even, by the end, the mildly monstrous Holly, with her social certainty and limited imagination. She operates as an enjoyably theatrical dea ex-machina at the end of the narrative, and we are prepared to forgive her outmoded attitudes and glowing smugness, which has anyway been rather fun for us since we can look down upon it.

Time and again, Jane Gardam sets up what looks like one thing and shows us the many ways of looking at it. With a shake of her plain sentences, a flourish of the direct speech at which she is so adept across idioms, she shifts our view. We see chic, brittle Thomasina at a health farm awaiting the birth of her granddaughter; when we see her again she's a broken old lady leaving the health farm following the death of her daughter. But not before she has been spotted by the debonair widower Giles, who woos and wins her in a sandstorm in Egypt, some pages on. They conduct an affair of the most elegant passion in which their advanced age is positively an asset. Assumptions must be laid aside; in this way, Jane Gardam secures tolerance, which is a crucial law in the world of her fiction.

We meet Holly's stick of a widower, Andrew, a surgeon who performs tidy hysterectomies. His handsome unworldly brother Jack is married to the beautiful celibate Jocasta, for whom Andrew has an established - and reciprocal - amour fou. The book's Nellie Dean, old Alice the lousy cook who adores Jack, observes this love in thoroughly uncelibate action. We see it on a few occasions as thrilling, and are then swivelled by Gardam's light- seeming control into finding it trivial and repugnant. Saintly Jack is shown up as vainer and flightier than the book's several finely delineated old ladies.

The nicest old lady, however, is Faith's paternal Gran, Dolly, who lives with her husband Toots and his zimmer frame:

"She followed Toots down the garden path as he proceeded behind the walking frame, slowly, looking left and right with dignity, like a king making a public appearance before his subjects."

This couple provide some family for Jocasta's dyslexic son, Philip, whose locked-in intelligence is conveyed in scenes that are the most troubling in the book. A combination of idleness, selfishness and "liberal" enlightenment prevents the adults in his life from helping him much, until a simple soul we have hardly noticed heretofore releases him from his personal haunting.

No stated judgements mar this book, which achieves its distances with a saturation of merciful satire. The few occasions on which Jane Gardam's sophistication slips occur when she is transcribing the thoughts of her characters in italicised passages that seem untypically clumsy, skidding between the sentimentality, caricature and fixity of attitude which she so conspicuously avoids in the rest of this generous and fluid novel.