Everything but the bloke

Instances of the Number 3

Salley Vickers <em>Fourth Estate, 320pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1841156582

Salley Vickers's novel Miss Garnet's Angel was one of the unexpected success stories of last year. Praised by a number of leading critics, it was singled out by no less a figure than Martin Goff, of the Booker Prize committee, as a novel he was surprised not to have seen on the shortlist. Penelope Fitzgerald, Harold Bloom, Anita Brookner and John Bayley all added words of praise for the book, which became a word-of-mouth bestseller.

Which all goes to show either how very different tastes are, or perhaps that people do after all judge books by their covers. I am not alone in having bought the novel with expectations raised by its jewel-like jacket and heavy-hitting supporters, only to find a rather banal story about an elderly woman in Venice finding love and freedom for the first time.

Instances of the Number 3 is also well presented both visually (a painting by Craigie Aitchison) and as a novel of ideas ("An intriguing evocation of universal instances of triads"). In truth, it is, well, the dear old Hampstead adultery novel, only without the bloke and with an extra mystery mistress thrown in. Peter Hansome has died in a car crash. His wife, Bridget, a dealer in French bricolage, strikes up an unlikely alliance with Frances, the manager of a Soho art gallery, after inviting her to Peter's funeral. They go to a concert together, have meals and even share a bed (chastely, divided by a bolster) in Bridget's new Shropshire house. There's no sex, but a lot of reminiscence about it in between details of the middle-class quotidian. This is the Fulham version of the menage a trois, particularly once the exquisitely beautiful Iranian youngster Zahin moves in with Bridget as a sort of houseboy.

Zahin, though a dab hand with the Pledge, is not what he appears - any more than Miss Garnet's Italian admirer was a gentleman. It is tiring to contemplate this perennial British distrust of foreigners, even when we are told that the one true love of Peter's life was his Malaysian girlfriend. The novel is permeated by accounts of each of the three protagonists' pasts - together, or alone - set mostly in Ireland, Paris and Malaysia. Vickers makes us know them very thoroughly, and has a promising knack of sometimes making them think or say mildly unexpected things.

What she does not do is make one care about them. They are achingly, crashingly, grindingly dull, to the extent that you find yourself hoping Zahin will shoot them all. Partly this is because of the ponderousness of Vickers's style. It was bad enough when Henry James put commonplace phrases in quotes (the authorial equivalent of handling them with tongs), but there is no excuse for a 21st-century novelist to follow suit. Why are "settling down", "got through" and "infantile" given this treatment? As an indication of a single character's awareness of irony this technique might just work, but scattered throughout, it is mere affectation. Vickers makes banal observations (such as "journeys offer opportunity for reflection") seem portentous, and her insight into the male sex is equally uninspired: "It is a stereotype that men are sexual aggressors: knights in armour, full of buck and swagger - potential rapists, no less. The truth, as always, is more complex, men being in general far more fragile in their masculinity than is commonly supposed." Well, only if you are completely ignorant of the debates on masculinity that have raged for the past decade. The artifice extends to dialogue, to the pompous authorial "we", to the clumsy patterning of symbolic triangles and, most maddening of all, to the appearance of Peter's ghost, hovering over his wife and mistress until their affairs are sorted out.

Buried inside Instances of the Number 3 is a piece of social comedy exploring death, and the strange things bereavement makes people do or say. This is a good subject and, where the novel forgets about Literature, funny. It is not Vickers's fault that she has been compared to Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, when the comparison can only be unflattering, but it is that she has taken herself so seriously as An Author. If you are the kind of person who reads modern fiction infrequently, this novel may beguile you. Otherwise, wait until this author has earned her praise.

Amanda Craig's latest novel, In a Dark Wood, is out in paperback from Fourth Estate (£6.99)