Louise Doughty gets lost in an ocean of unlikely yarns, but learns to enjoy the trip; Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale Flamingo, pounds 16.99
A Novel called Tree Surgery for Beginners is destined to be shelved in the wrong section of bookshops. This may be no bad thing. Gale's new work is altogether more sombre than his previous books, particularly in its early stages, and suffers by comparison.

Tree-surgeon Lawrence wakes blearily in the cab of his pick-up truck, having camped overnight in the woods after a violent row with his missus. When he returns home, the missus and their daughter have disappeared. What follows seems at first to be an account of the degeneration of a marriage but quickly becomes something more sinister when a dismembered corpse is discovered in the wood where Lawrence was sleeping.

The passages dealing with his arrest on suspicion of murder are the least convincing. He is held for 10 days, apparently without being charged, while the tabloids print a vast array of lurid stories about him, information which, under our current system, would all be sub judice. Domestic realism is not Gale's strong point either. In one of the flashbacks, Lawrence picks up his daughter from her childminder at five, returns home, gets her to draw Mummy a picture, arranges some flowers, prepares an adult dinner, prepares and feeds supper to the child, bathes her, puts her to bed, reads her a story, bathes himself and dresses - and then sits twiddling his thumbs waiting for his wife to come home at seven. (Later in the novel, the same five- year-old girl appears routinely to go to bed at 11.) These inconsistencies are unworthy of Gale's talent and his editor should have pounced on them.

The bizarre developments which follow are, paradoxically, much more convincing. Cleared of murder but denied access to his wife and daughter, Lawrence embarks on an ocean-liner cruise which makes Polanski's Bitter Moon look like The Love Boat. Seduced by a cabaret singer (possibly transsexual), Lawrence discovers obsessive love, only to lose the object of his passion when they disembark on the Virgin Islands due to a conveniently unpredictable tiger attack. Gale treads a thin line between the surreal and the just plain silly, but once we are firmly in the land of ludicrousness, the reader can sit back and enjoy the ride.

There is still not nearly enough of the bitter wit and sharply driven language that made his earlier works so riotously enjoyable. Gale's fans - he numbers Stephen Fry and Armistead Maupin among them - may well enjoy this book, but newcomers to his work would be advised to start elsewhere.

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