BOOK REVIEW / The smell of success: 'The Copper Beech' - Maeve Binchy: Orion, 14.99

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The Independent Online
It is 1958 and Richard Hayes is in town. He is almost unbelievably handsome, and it is widely recognised in Shencarrig that a visitor like this comes only once every 50 years. From his angle, Shencarrig is a one-horse town, and a pretty poor horse at that. Banished there from Dublin for reckless philandering, he is determined to worsen his ways. Oho, Richard, comeuppance is waiting.

Maeve Binchy is a thoroughly moral novelist, but she carries her morality skittishly. She makes excuses for all her characters: there are no devils or angels, but plenty of faulty faltering humans. Yet in the end, virtue, in the loosest possible sense, will be sure to triumph. Richard will be returning to the big city not exactly chaste, but chastened.

The Copper Beech tells not one story but about 12. It begins with an episcopal visitation which is nearly scuppered by the creative sabotage of a group of 10-year-olds, led by the fiendish Foxy Dunne. These children come from every level of Irish village life, and their subsequent histories reflect the bending

of the social barriers that have

for generations divided their

families.

Foxy Dunne himself, the wiliest and grubbiest of the lot, strikes it rich and marries the Major's daughter. So respectable does he become that his son, classily christened Moore, cashes in on his alarming looks and volunteers for the school pageant, taking the role of the Burning Bush.

You want to read Maeve Binchy's books as fast as she seems to have written them. This one fairly gallops along because her apparently spontaneous and casual manner covers masterly plotting. She is not above the 'slim and willowy' kind of cliche, but she never overdoes it.

More often, she will suggest a character with a single, telling image that doesn't waste a paragraph: one woman has a face 'like a long drink of water'; another takes holy water leaving church as if she were about to give the papal urbi et orbi Easter blessing; a child prays not to be pretty but 'to be liked more. People that are popular are very very happy. They can go around doing good all the time. Honestly, God, even children. I'd be a great child and a great grown-up. Just try it and see.'

The village is an Irish amalgam of Milk Wood and Ambridge. Secrets are hard to keep, and although the most thumbed leaflets at the back of the church are called, forbiddingly, The Devil at Dances and Keeping Company, not everyone heeds their warnings. Dangerous company is often kept.

The copper beech of the title overshadows the school, and most of the children have made their mark on its trunk. Generally, it's the initials-in-the-heart kind of engraving, but as so often with this writer, just when the flowery dell of sentimentality opens up, there is a signpost towards comic irony. The message 'Gloria in Excelsis' is not carved by an enthusiastic cleric, although its perpetrator enjoys the idea that people might think so.

Instead, it commemorates the torrid affair between gorgeous Richard and Gloria, the grocer's lusty wife. When, to his astonishment, she ditches him, he toys gloomily with the idea of finishing the story and carving on the tree 'Sic Transit Gloria Mundi'.

The novel ends with the sale of the school in 1970. By then, countless loose ends have been neatly tidied up, as has the village itself. The filthy hovels have been tastefully modernised; Ryan's Hotel has swapped its brown walls and chamber-pots for eau-de-nil bathrooms and a playground, and just desserts have been received, rather more often than is statistically likely. It is all very satisfactory.

There is an unusual quirk of style in this book. Several characters are described not in terms of clothing but of perfume, and the less grand the smell, the more likely is its wearer to be appealing. So, the rich and wicked murderess is seen wielding a tin of Tweed talcum powder and meets a horrid end, while lesser mortals smell of Knights Castile or Imperial Leather and generally come off better. It reminded me of an old rhyme:

Any girl can look right in a

bath pearly white,

with bath salts to add to her frolic,

But the girl of my soul stands

up in a bowl

and does what she can

with carbolic.

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