Books: What the beauty queen did with her herbal tea

Luck By Joan Barfoot WEIDENFELD pounds 12.99 pounds 11.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Ever since the discovery of chaos theory, novelists have been preoccupied with happenstance, and it's no surprise that one of Canada's finest practitioners should have chosen Luck for the title of her latest novel. As Joan Barfoot remarks, "Everybody's got a story... Experiences and trajectories ricochet off each other, they take slow curves and sharp turns, they wreak confusion here, salvation there and - this is the hardest thing - there's no way to predict which detail or tiny decision may grow huge in consequence."

Beth, Sophie and Nora are three women who wake up one morning to find Phil, the man whose house they share, dead in bed. The novel follows their reactions, feelings, guilty secrets and discoveries over the next three days. It's a simple device, so simple that it needs much technical skill, wit and insight to carry it off. Barfoot, Booker long-listed for her last novel, Critical Injuries, and admired by no less than Carol Shields and Alice Munro, is more than up to the challenge.

As befitting a chamber-piece, each of the three women is very different. Beth, boringly beautiful, has been the model for Nora's boldly feminist reinterpretations of the life of Christ, which have scandalised the small village where they live and made her famous nationally. Accustomed to finding "HARLOT" and "JEZEBEL" painted on the white fence of their charming old home on the hill, all three women are suspected of having sex with Phil, an attractive middle-aged joiner. Unknown to the imperious Nora, this is perfectly true in the case of Sophie, their servant and Phil's voluptuous, red-haired mistress. By far the most sympathetic character in the trio, Sophie was born to privilege but felt such guilt she has fallen several notches in the social scale following work with a charity in Africa.

Like the cult television series Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives, Luck is a sustained, sardonic satire on mortality. This being Canada, not California, the small-town religious zealotry is harsher, with the ugly side of village life revealed slowly, and almost as quickly overlaid with funeral baked pies and cookies from the community. Barfoot has not chosen to comment before on the way women artists confront prejudice and stupidity, and her observations are even-handed in their wisdom and acidity. She springs jokes and puns on you, her punctuation Sparkian in its fastidious exactitude and her eye for the quietly absurd unerring. It is the kind of fiction men dislike and dismiss, but at their peril.

Whether describing Beth's appallingly manipulative, rabidly ambitious mother, plotting how best to exploit her daughter's beauty through a series of beauty pageants - a mother whom Beth, with her sinister knowledge of herbal teas, eventually dispatches - or Nora's confrontation with Phil's first wife, Barfoot is both harrowing and hilarious. Her voice is that of a friend confiding the most intimate stories about mutual acquaintances, yet - like all the best novelists - she is principally addressing not us, but the fact of our cumulative acts of betrayal and cruelty. This is far funnier than Critical Injuries, a black comedy that has a happy ending as temporary and random as luck itself.