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thursday's book

The Stillest Day by Josephine Hart (Chatto & Windus, pounds 12.99)
Husbands and wives don't last long in Josephine Hart novels. Nor do their poor offspring. Untimely death and illicit sex are Hart's preferred poison. Like her previous novels Damage, Sin and Obsession, her latest - a highly-charged period melodrama - reeks of guilty secrets and the grave.

It's clear from the first page that a tragedy of Hardyesque proportions awaits Bethesda Barnet. Verging on spinsterhood at 29, this artistically- inclined school-ma'am divides her time between the village school and her invalid mother. Expected to marry Samuel Keans, a hirsute local farmer, she revels in her weekly visits with Lord Grantleigh - the school's benefactor, and a connoisseur of fine art and young women.

But just as Bethesda prepares to sacrifice herself on the twin altars of marriage and children, destiny visits her in the person of a handsome stranger.

Mathew Pearson is the school's new English master, and the Barnets' new neighbour. Bethesda's first glimpse of the newcomer is of a rain-washed face thrown heavenward - a vision that sears itself into her imagination with the force of a religious revelation.

At this point the novel lets its hair down, and Josephine Hart takes her customary leap off the deep end. Unhinged by desire, Bethesda confines herself to her bedroom where she takes to painting the schoolmaster in every possible position (he looks particularly good nailed to a cross). Even worse, she starts to eavesdrop on the sounds coming from behind the adjoining wall - masochistic in the extreme, as Christ-like Mathew is not only very handsome, but very married.

Hart's clinical and strangled prose encircle her heroine's pain like a too-tight corset. Littered with significant-sounding metaphors, the book's short sentences and chapters build on their own strange momentum. Leached of both colour and normal speech, Hart's characters may sound like inscrutable players in a Greek drama, but the overall effect is undeniably creepy.

A pity, then, that when tragedy strikes, it's so shocking as to be laughable. One minute Mathew's wife (fluffy, blonde and pregnant) is supping tea with Bethesda and her mother. The next she is being sliced open with a shard of glass and a palate knife.

Impromptu Caesarian sections don't go down well in small rural communities, and they are pretty hard to pull off in novel form. Not surprisingly, the second half takes a serious nose-dive - although it's worth reading just to savour some lewd acts with Lord Grantleigh (and a giant mirror) that make the head-banging sex in Damage look positively, well, sexy.

A slim and elegant novelette, this has all the makings of a very bad afternoon play on Radio 4.

Emma Hagestadt