THE GIRLS A Story of Village Life By John Bowen Atlantic Monthly Press. 182 pp. $16.95
FOR THE casual browser the trappings of this sly little novel are like the crumbs leading Hansel and Gretel to gingerbread danger. To begin with, there's the intentionally coy title, which should start one conjuring up the right sort of images. Next comes the Edward Gorey jacket illustration -- a clear signal, of course, that genteel, if peculiar, mayhem is in store.
And if these aren't enough, there's the rather unusual use of a cover quote on a hardcover novel. "Satisfying horror!" says Gore Vidal -- who then goes on at greater length on the inside front flap.
Certainly, a willing audience for The Girls must exist: people who like Myra Breckinridge as well as Miss Marple; fans of Beryl Bainbridge, Russell Greenan and Patricia Highsmith; those who feel Barbara Pym-ish on some days and Stephen King-ish on others. And then there are always folks such as myself -- which is to say, admirers of Bowen's last thriller, The McGuffin, anxious to see just how he'll top that clever and creepy bit of work.
In fact, the Hitchcockian allusion of that title (to a device for focusing suspense in his films) takes another turn this time around: here the "McGuffin" itself of the story is a disappearing corpse a` la The Trouble With Harry. And, yes, it is too bad that the late Alfred isn't around to option either of these Bowen homages -- both would have made that famous pendulous lower lip curl upwards in wicked anticipation!
"The girls. Miss Hallas and Miss Burt, Janet and Susan, Jan and Sue." Though not native to the village, they've been local fixtures for nearly 20 years and have the loyalty of their neighbors, who don't question the nature of their attachment to one another. "If they had been two young gentlemen living together, making yoghurt and sewing smocks, the village would have talked, but for two ladies nothing could be more proper, and if they also shared a bed, only Mrs. Marshall knew that, and she kept her own counsel." Mrs. Marshall is their charlady, one of the wise-old-bird sort, and so she's also the first to learn from Janet of her unexpected pregnancy. In a funny way, the whole thing was Sue's fault since, in a fit of rebellious and confused ennui, she'd gone off on holiday by herself, leaving Jan to do a Crafts Fair on her own.
At that event, Jan had befriended the lonely Alan, who was missing his own partner, Bob. And somehow, this temporary comforting resulted in an even briefer sexual encounter. "If this is heterosexuality, Janet thought, it certainly isn't what it's cracked up to be." Thus enlightened, she'd welcomed back the chastened Sue, who, it happily turns out, had begun to pine for Janet practically the moment the plane took off.
So, even though she's considerably surprised when eventually presented with Jan's news, Sue sensibly decides to postpone her jealousy and concentrate on the immediate practical details, like dealing with Janet's health and what Janet's parents will say. Yet as the two women prepare to become "mothers," there's never any question of telling the hapless Alan he's fathered a child.
For now, Alan is a negligible factor. Alas, he won't be for long.
THE GIRLS share the pregnancy and delivery like any devoted couple, though it's not every new mother who can look up and say, "Well, I'm never going through that again . . .if we have any more, you'll have to do it." The sturdy baby boy, nicknamed Butch (let's forgive Bowen, shall we?), is soon the center of their household, but the threat of Alan -- an altogether unthreatening young man, really -- never goes away.
What's fun about this novel is the way the various odd situations carry unexpected weight, keeping matters just the teeniest bit off-balance but always in the smoothest possible fashion. When an immense pig finds itself loose in a shop, it's a more violent scene than when a killing occurs. Even the arrival of a simple Christmas card in the mail can be truly ominous in such a deadpan comedy of modern murder. How Bowen can be simultaneously so cozy and so utterly aloof from the coziness he's created is a wonder! But his mockery is affectionate and never jarring. And he often reveals himself as not observant but wise:
"Lovers even at the height of passion often find it hard to say, 'I love you.' The words come more easily when passion has cooled and contracted and other interests have begun to fill the space . . . Love, once it dares to speak its name, is so easy to confuse with guilt, when 'I love you' is likely to mean 'I wish I loved you more than I do' or 'I'm used to you' or even 'Why do you continue to make emotional demands?' "
The Girls is not high tragedy, just as Gorey isn't Goya, but neither is it high camp. Bowen's authorial voice is too steady to be precious and the novel charms us as only certain tales "of village life" can. ::
Michele Slung's books include "Crime on Her Mind" and "Momilies."