FOR THE WRITER every book must be a new departure, but some innovations are undoubtedly more startling than others. Fay Weidon's new novel takes her into a rich mean, ostentatious, shoddy world of fairy-tale wealth and horror a million thought miles away from the shabby realism of bedsitter land she knows and has described so well. There were last book. Remember Me, but controlled in a framework of realism she has now almost entirely abandoned.
She starts off gently enough with a typically assorted 70s couple a middle-aged tax accountant who has dropped out but not too far, into antique dealing, macrobiotics and yoga and his 19-year-old mistress from the typing pool. Buxom, stupid endlessly exploirable. Elsa is a recognizable enough Weldon character but the world she stumbles into on her plat form soles blouse bursting jeans zip per undone is unlike anything she has experienced or can comprehend.
It is a world of the very, very rich the setting a country house, brand new, but complete with every retinement that bad taste can devise. Fay Weldon's eye for detail is as sharp and wicked as ever here is her description of a guest room.
"It has white fur walls and a ceiling frieze picked out in navy and pink. The carpet is magenta mylon, however, not wool, as the tinny feel between the toes presently betrays the curtains are crimson flowered the furniture is black laquered and the round bed is covered with a spread composed of serried layers of mauve and grey gauzy flounces.
The meannessess and contrivances of the rich - who will endlessly refreeze and reheat food rather than throw it away house their servants in chilly cells and haggle over the price of an indifferent piece of furniture - are recounted with wit and malice. An uncomfortable weekend or two have paid rich dividends for Fay Weldon one guess if not for her hosts.
This gimerack palace is not to be taken literally however, in spite of its convincing details. It is a pantomime transformation scene, and Elsa the formless child in the audience who will be hauled on stage to be used as a prop in elaborate scenes whose meaning she doesn't understand. "The rich do play games with other people," her lover tells her. "They have nothing better to do." In charge is a crippled princess who turns from good fairy to wicked stepmother and back again at will and who Scheherazade-like, mesmerizes Elsa into listening to a bizarre account of her own life and fate at the hands of a murderous pervert.
This story dives back into the swinging 60s and though ostensibly told as a cautionary tale for Elsa's benefit, "a warning to wantons." it becomes the heart of the novel a gothic extravaganza that needs no external frame of reference and only gets a perfunctory apology for one. It's wildly sickeningly funny with echoes of early Iris Murdoch (naming a sinister character Mr. Fox perhaps brings The Flight From the Enchanter a little too close for comfort). The story moves between the plastic parrot-filled showrooms of a jeweller who works only in solid gold or sugar to create his navel studs, armpit jewels and pornographic rings for the beautiful people, and the Ramsbottles, a cosy three-holiday family with a resentful daughter who yearns for no holidays at all.
"How, wondered Gemma, could theworld hold both the Ramsbottle family and Mr. Fox as well? If one was real how could the other be too?"
But the Ramsbottles are no more real than Mr. Fox they are a comic family from some television series, the creatures of myth as much as Gemma's toad-prince and Gemma herself. Their appearance to a bewildered Elsa at Sunday lunch underlines that the present as well as the past action of this novel is not meant to be taken literally, and that the characters, being larger and simpler than life, have symbolic roles to play, as their symbolic names suggest. They cannot elicit from the reader the close almost loving identification that the people in Fay Weldon's earlier novels demanded and got.
That being so the authorial asides that have always been a feature of her novels as commentary on the action adjudicating between characters and drawing attention to nuances of behavior seem. When applied to these monstrous dwarfs and giants. Unnecessary didacticism. These characters already have the power of myth they don't need and can't benefit from that kind of helping hand.