The Edge of Pleasure, by Philippa Stockley<br></br> Private View, by Jean McNeil

Artistic licence that produces a picture of happiness

Ruth Pavey
Monday 26 August 2002 00:00

The first novel by Philippa Stockley is just the sort of pleasurable read one might look for at a holiday time. Its blurb calls it reminiscent of Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark, but echoes of more distant writers came to this reader's mind: Waugh and Thackeray in the cheerful satire of ruthless high society, of Austen both in the satire and the improbable ascendancy of Miss Sweet and Decent. For how long after the end Mr Insouciant and Irresistible would remain perfectly amiable is, however, open to doubt.

Charming, selfish Gilver Memmer, Stockley's main character, does have the advantage of a kindly disposition. Any harm that he does is unintentional, and he is so handsome and talented as an artist that most people in his orbit are thrilled to be there. With an enjoyably wry eye for detail, Stockley follows Memmer's career from art school to high-earning celebrity painter. She sets it in a somewhat timeless, dandyish world of beautiful clothes and beautiful women, of Knightsbridge and New York.

Naturally, things cannot continue so smoothly. Various agents of ruin await, but do not overtake, our man. The most amusing comes in the form of harpy Juliette, a fine caricature of a gossip magazine editor. For a wobbly passage it looks as though we may be asked to sympathise with Juliette, but she soon reverts to her witch role.

Most of the other foible-rich characters are essentially likeable, thanks to the affectionate zest of their portrayal. If Alice, the nice girl, is not assured of a happy future, at least she did not settle for the previous boyfriend, who has Memmer's selfishness without his charm. Charm, as this book both says and itself embodies, is worth a fair bit.

In Private View, Jean McNeil is much more specific about the period in which her artist characters live. Alex (a woman) Conrad, Rachel and Fernando belong to the colony of east London artists who, by the late 1990s, are getting pushed out of studios in Spitalfields and Shoreditch by loft-dwelling bankers. The malaise from which they suffer, however, has less to do with property values than with the feeling that they are pegging on a bit (ie no longer in their twenties).

They are old enough for quite a few things to have gone wrong in their lives, but young enough still to believe the world owes them happiness. So it is just as well that their me-first maunderings are couched in McNeil's dry, witty prose. In a sense, the real heroine is not so much Alex as London itself, or that part within a mile's radius of Liverpool Street Station.

McNeil, who was brought up in Nova Scotia and is also a travel writer, conveys with great freshness the area's irrepressible, beautiful-ugly quality, its capacity for absorbing different sorts of people and for re-inventing itself in the process. The fact that, by the end, all four main characters have left London emphasises that it is the life of the city, not of transient individuals, that really interests her.

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