Novel of the week

A Stairway to Paradise

Madeleine St John <em>Fourth Estate, 185pp, £10.99</em>

Once writers had licence to compose on two inches of ivory. No longer. So much information is available that to ignore it seems irresponsible. Just as novelists who disregard sex seem prudish, novelists who concern themselves solely with well-heeled, educated characters seem imaginatively limited or, even less forgivably, elitist. Unease about the fictional value of the moneyed classes is one reason why Madeleine St John, whose novel The Essence of the Thing was a surprise contender for the 1997 Booker prize, became the most derided member of that widely derided shortlist.

Another reason is tone. St John's well-heeled, educated characters exclaim "whizzy!". They say "you poppet" and "I say, let's go into the drawing room, shall we?" They listen to the wireless. Andrew, in this new novel, has manners that are "sometimes enough to bring tears to your eyes"; these manners include, in most situations, not betraying his feelings "with even the slightest flicker of an eyelid". What is the point of these people?

A Stairway to Paradise opens in the aftermath of a party, with three people driving home: Barbara, young, voluptuous and strangely flip; Alex, perhaps commensurately brusque; and Andrew, gauchely nurturing a sense of failure. Andrew has returned to Britain after ten years' teaching in the States, leaving behind an estranged wife and a young daughter. London is not how he remembers it; his friends are changed. His sense of being lost, cut off from some essential guidance, is shared by the other characters.

Barbara, for example. Since graduating, she has found that she "couldn't get going on that career thing", and has drifted through a succession of child-minding and private catering jobs. She may sound rather Sloaney and feckless, but she is more touching than that: St John shows, subtly, that Barbara's disengagement is a kind of moral, maybe spiritual, crisis. Andrew is forlornly smitten with her. He does not know that, a year before, Barbara had an affair with Alex. The narrative backtracks to tell the story of this relationship. Alex's wife, Claire, his marriage to whom has diminished to exchanges of "ironical courtesy", is about to spend a week pursuing her career as a cultural commentator at the Scunthorpe Literary Festival. Surely a joke, he thinks; whereas she finds risible his question about Barbara, whom they have engaged to look after their two children while Claire is away: "knows what she's doing, does she? Understands kids?". Then Claire succumbs for a moment to despair at the loss of familial understanding Alex's question implies. Unable to comfort her, he offers: "Drink?" Barbara arrives. She and Alex are awkwardly polite; then they fall in love.

It is a brief release. Alex will not abandon his children; Barbara will not engage in deception. His attitude might seem hypocritical, hers priggish. Yet St John convincingly portrays people struggling to exercise an almost outmoded kind of virtue. One hesitates to emphasise the point, because the delicate structure of A Stairway to Paradise is not built to withstand too much exegesis, but Alex and Barbara are looking for salvation. "You don't find God," Alex says. "God finds you."

Madeleine St John maintains her distance but does not withhold sympathy. She is good on children, who have bit parts in which to be precocious without being nauseating; and she is good on adults' relationships with children. Andrew's feelings for his daughter are, in a few strokes, most touchingly evoked.

A Stairway to Paradise has 49 chapters in 185 pages, a good many of which contain a lot of white space. A cursory glance suggests flimsy plotting, functional prose and shallow characters. But this is a novel with much more substance, craft and imaginative sympathy than its surface reveals.

Nicholas Clee is editor of the "Bookseller"

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world