BOOK REVIEW / All dressed up and nothing much to read: 'Sin' - Josephine Hart: Chatto & Windus, 11.99

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This frazzled novella hasn't much in the way of plot, or theme, or style, or even characters. Indeed, it is free of most things that we might hope for in a novel, but you have to hand it to Josephine Hart: Sin might be the spearhead of a new fictional genre.

It is short, it is undemanding, and it won't keep you awake at night - welcome to the decaff novel. Only imagine: no fuss, no mess, just an easy-to-read, novel-shaped thing that gives you those 'literary sensations' but leaves no unpleasant aftertaste. It's that simple]

Actually, it's not that simple. Like Hart's previous novel, Damage, this book will take you no more than a couple of hours to read, yet the only sensations elicited are ones of wonder at its brass neck. For a start, aren't novels meant to be, well, written, as opposed to being patched together from dog-eared, flood-damaged, third-hand bits of other novels?

Those tedious inventories of clothes and furniture and designer goodies, haven't we read them somewhere before - say, on the wedding list at the Conran shop? And those characters, those rich and beautiful people, aren't they supposed to bear at least a passing resemblance to human beings? Why do they talk to each other as if they were auditioning for the school play? Is there anybody home?

Sin feebly hitches a lift on the modish idea of stolen lives. Ruth, a dark-haired beauty, conceives an obsessive and enduring hatred of her cousin Elizabeth. Orphaned young, Elizabeth had been adopted by Ruth's parents, and so usurped the cherished role of first-born before Ruth saw the light of day. And boy, is she ever mad about it: 'It seemed to me that I came wrapped in a caul of darkness and anger into Elizabeth's kingdom. For it was her kingdom. Given to her out of love and pity.'

The wound festers into adulthood as Ruth gradually steps up her secret campaign to take over Elizabeth's person - it's a first-degree merger. Having stolen trinkets, underwear, stockings and shoes from the hapless woman, Ruth now schemes to make off with her husband and son (you can see the tag-line on the film poster already: 'First she wanted her lingerie. Now she wants her life').

It's all rather demoralising. Hart wants to chill us with the fiendish machinations of rich-bitch Ruth and make us gasp in horror as she stalks her prey, but all I wanted to know was: why can't she write in proper sentences? With every clause cordoned off by a full stop, the prose develops a sing-song lilt that sets the teeth on edge. Here is Ruth, for example, taking time out with her sad-sack husband: 'As Dominick spoke, I tried to listen. I knew it was important. I tried. One should. He was in pain. The pain of isolation. The isolation of pain. I listened to his pain. It's hard to hear. One listens so rarely. Certainly can't feel it. Another's pain.' And so on. Painfully.

The book is really no more than an extended soliloquy, one woman strutting and fretting her hour upon the page. Every so often a shop-window dummy - some relative or other - is wheeled on to help to tack together some wooden bits of dialogue. The laziness on display is staggering. Hart at times abandons sentences altogether and transcribes her notes (or maybe gets somebody else to do it for her): 'Facts. Established by questions. And answers. Asthma attack. Stephen's. A non-swimmer. Ben. A hero. William.'

This, in case you were wondering, alludes to the double tragedy of Ruth's and Elizabeth's young sons, drowned in the lake. Death figures quite prominently in this story, though like Hart's version of sex and violence, it's just another item to tick on the designer checklist. If the Grim Reaper were to make a personal appearance here, you can bet he'd be wearing a Versace cowl and wielding a sickle from Asprey.

Do not be tempted by Sin. Educated people will try to justify books such as Josephine Hart's on the trash aesthetic principle, claiming that a hike downmarket can be a good thing every now and then. But life is short, and we have only so many reader-hours left in us - don't waste them on this.