Back to basics

The Clematis Tree

Ann Widdecombe <em>Orion, 288pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0297645722

Ann Widdecombe's first novel is a thinly disguised moral tract. She presents us with a wealthy middle-class couple, Paul and Claire Wellings, who are so unremittingly bland and narrow-minded that you feel a tragic car accident is, perhaps, the only antidote to death by smugness. Sadly, the plot calls for the sacrifice of the first-born son (sounds familiar?) and the car scrunches over young Jeremy Wellings, rather than his more deserving parents, leaving him severely brain-damaged.

The backdrop for this tragedy is the christening of Jeremy's sister, Pippa, and the author sprinkles the portents of doom liberally throughout the opening chapter: "In the distance, a low rumble foretold a storm." Before you can say "Lewis Carroll", Jeremy has chased a large white rabbit into the path of an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk young man. The rest of the book is taken up with the Wellings' disintegrating marriage as they nurse their disabled son and bring up their sulky daughter against the subplot of a euthanasia bill presented to parliament by Claire's MP sister, Sally. In short, lesbian sex in front of an Aga is sadly lacking.

The hallmark of Widdecombe's writing is the neat correlation of cause and effect. If someone is run over, then the driver must be drunk, speeding, or both. The author has precious little time for cruel Fate; tragedy in her fiction is a direct result of breaching middle-class mores. The book is stuffed full of lesser crimes of sloppy citizenry, such as public phonebox hogging, strangers who call you by your first name, and gossipy neighbours. But the most scathing observations are reserved for women of immodest apparel, such as the "heavy woman with too short a skirt, several layers of make-up and peroxide blonde hair" who also has a disabled child - "a slattern," thinks Mark, from whose persepective most of the book is told. But if he's bad, Claire is worse. She won't have a young girl to tea because her mum's a single parent, her brothers are called Dean, Lee and Wayne, and "they probably lived on a council estate and drew benefit". A regular churchgoer, Claire has no Christian charity, drives her husband away, but sees other women as predatory. She prevents Mark deserting her with a cynical pregnancy.

So there we are. A book about a child and a white rabbit without pictures and without jokes, which can read like a grammatically correct Sunday-school essay. The weakness of the dialogue is indicated by the frequent sprinkling of qualifying verbs and adjectives ("said Anne worthily"). Anachronisms abound. Widdecombe's novel is set firmly in the fantasy Britain evoked by John Major's failed "Back to Basics" campaign. If sex rears its ugly purple head, it is quickly slapped down by matron, and the only attractive character, the MP Sally, is still a virgin by the close of the book.