Book review: Comic cartwheels

The Travelling Hornplayer by Barbara Trapido Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99
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Hardened reader that I am, I didn't think it possible any novelist could still write a sex scene that would make me blush. I didn't think I could blush. But there I was with my own poppy cheeks for proof of it, wishing I hadn't had the bright idea of reading Barbara Trapido's novel while having my hair cut.

"Must be good", said the hair-cutter, visibly taking his eye off the job. "Can I borrow it?"

By the end of the day, three more people had asked the same question. I told them to go to a bookshop. Good novelists deserve to be bought, and Barbara Trapido is a very good novelist indeed.

The Travelling Hornplayer connects up with her first novel, a bittersweet comedy about a young girl called Katherine. A generation on, Katherine and her writer-husband Jonathan have become the parents of beautiful, backward Stella who grows up to become a cellist. Studying music at Edinburgh, Stella shares lodgings with a nice girl called Ellen and her quiet, self- sufficient boyfriend Pen. Stella also falls in love with a boy genius called Izzy, with whom the sex scene mentioned above takes place.

Trapido excels in intricate plots of the Iris Murdoch kind. Like Murdoch, she sometimes becomes so absorbed in artful narrative dodges that credibility is sacrificed. The tricky task she has given herself this time is to take one shocking incident and connect every character in the novel to it by a web of irresponsible actions.

Ellen's sister, Lydia, is on her way to - or from - a meeting with Stella's father Jonathan when she is knocked down by a car and killed. Earlier on the same day, Stella has mistaken Lydia for her father's mistress when she sees him flirting with a strange woman in Fortnum's restaurant, where she herself has just discovered that the delectable Izzy is double-dating her. Ellen's boyfriend Pen rescues Stella from committing suicide after she discovers that Izzy has given her Aids. But Pen has problems of his own; years of having to provide oral satisfaction to a tutor at a Catholic boarding-school have left him impotent. In one of the funniest and most touching scenes in the novel, Pen struggles to maintain an erection by plunging into an icy lake while Stella cartwheels naked around the banks. (Don't ask; read it.)

Social gradations have always fascinated Trapido. Effortlessly, she slips between North Oxford family homes, the sock-and-old-saucepan-infested squalor of Izzy's Edinburgh studio, and the chilly elegance of Pen's ancestral home in Northumberland. Here, in one of the most extended sections of the novel, dinner is eaten under "a huge, spooky oil painting of the The Last Supper in which the Paschal lamb is placed before Jesus looking like a flayed cat with a greenish mould". It is followed, to Stella's dismay, by family table-tennis in the hall under the watchful eye of Pen's father, the Opus Dei.

"Throughout the duration of this torture game the Opus Dei, who has changed his suit jacket for - I kid you not - a quilted black silk smoking jacket with orange corded piping and orange lining - sits on the carved barley- sugar throne under Gott mit uns and swivels a goblet of brandy, at which he sniffs with his puggy little nose, in between observing us all with fatherly pride."

The brio that Trapido brings to her comic set pieces is combined with the inventiveness and affection for her characters that make all her books such a joy to read. She works, perhaps, a little too hard at linking the chapters of the novel to the heartbreaking lyrics of die schone Mullerin. Occasionally she lets a joke outstay its welcome. The one-page transformation of Stella from dunce to musical prodigy is difficult to swallow. Small flaws. It's an enchanting book, funny, poignant and full of grace.