BOOK REVIEW / The buried secret of an English gentleman: Serenity House - Christopher Hope: Macmillan, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THE SHORTLIST for the Booker Prize, announced yesterday, includes this superb new novel by Christopher Hope. The Serenity House of the title, 'North London's Premier Eventide Refuge (Fees pounds 430 per week plus VAT)', boasts a hilarious assortment of geriatric inmates in varying states of dementia.

There is old Maudie, Beryl the Beard and Major Bobbno, who would have liked to 'nail the bastards' balls to the wall'; there are the Malherbe twins, once prominent in the Manchester wine trade, snoring Sandra and the Five Incontinents; and there is Max Montfalcon, born in 1909, a giant of a man, up at Oxford in the Thirties 'with Binkie Beaumont and that crowd', and very much the English gentleman - or is he?

This happy household is the pride of genial Cledwyn Fox, Serenity House's sole proprietor, who cares for the guests as if they were his own family. He is helped manfully in this by Night Matron, known to the twins as Rudolpha Hess.

The stage is set for comedy, but if you thought that Hope's novel might be in the mould of William Trevor's The Boarding House, or even offer the macabre wit of Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, you would be wide of the mark. There is no compassion here; Serenity House shares the same detailed observations, but this is comedy of the very blackest kind, more like Grand Guignol.

The trouble is that Max Montfalcon is not what he seems. A lifelong student of Fowler's Modern English Usage, with an intense dislike for Germans, he is a rich man whose sudden business killings once earned him a reputation as 'the piranha of the boardroom'.

Now in his eighties, Lear-like, Max surrenders his asset ('singular always - see Fowler') in return for rooms in the house where his daughter Lizzie lives with her husband, Albert, a fat and pink Tory MP. Max has never cared for Albert, and it is enough that Max claims to hail from Harwich - 'dear old Harwich, the Gateway to the Continent' - for Albert to be suspicious about Max's past.

Through a bizarre and fortuitous combination of circumstances involving Erica, a backbench MP from the other side of the House - whose afternoon cavortings with Albert provide Hope with scope for some prurient punning about members and motions - and jolly Jack, a blond and breezy lad from Florida, we soon learn that dear old Max is none other than Maximilian von Falkenberg, a Nazi famous for his work as a 'doctor' who experimented with racial science in the death camps of Poland.

Jack, like Max, is not what he seems either. He is a hoodlum, raised on videos from the Aardvark Video Emporium, both more dangerous and more clever than he looks: certainly clever enough to steal his foster-mother's collection of letters and death-camp memorabilia from under her bed at the Tranquil Pines Mobile Home Park. He must also be a strong candidate for the most unpleasant creation in recent modern fiction.

When Jack sets off for London to see if there might be more memorabilia to come, and is let loose in an England that he regards as some sort of crazy theme- park, the hunt is on. Lo and behold, he procures a job as a night nurse at Serenity House - just two days before Albert and Lizzie, now at the end of her tether with her father's incontinence and his 'bathability' stool that goes neither up nor down, deliver Max to the eventide refuge.

As the finale gathers to a climax, the whirligig picks up speed and the music becomes a danse macabre as Max and Jack prepare for a final confrontation whose outcome it would be improper to reveal. The resolution of Max's identity and murky past is at the heart of this cleverly constructed novel, which in the hands of another writer might have been a tense thriller.

Christopher Hope, however, employs a blend of devastating satire and gruesome humour to counterpoint the banal with the fantastic, and does so to dazzling

effect with his rapidly interchanging points of view and taut economy of style. The reader may be unsettled, even appalled, but is not likely to lose interest for a moment.