Among the smug gits

<strong>Notting Hell</strong>

Rachel Johnson <em>Fig Tree, 328pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0670915750

When I first came to London 15 years ago, I briefly lived in Notting Hill. My God, I longed to leave. In those days, All Saints Road (the All Saints Road, to be really Notting Hill about it) was where you went to buy crack, not cracked wheat, and if you wanted to get rid of something - anything - you just left it in the street. On one occasion, I dragged a horrible, stained mattress out into the square where we rented our flat. Five minutes later, I glanced out of the window and it was gone. This was a service I found convenient, but very . . . lowering. So I moved.

I think I'd hate it even more now. Actually, I did pay a visit not so long ago, and it was quite terrifying. I have never felt so plain and poor and so utterly gross as I did that afternoon on Westbourne Grove, weaving between all the baby buggies and wishing that, like everyone else, I was wearing really enormous sunglasses rather than squinting sweatily into the sun as it bounced aggressively off the stucco. Which is a very long-winded way of saying that I had high hopes of Notting Hell. I'd read that Rachel (sister of Boris) Johnson's mother had warned her that her novel about life on a W11 garden square would get her into a lot of trouble. The author herself has said that it will start a "shit storm". You go, girl, I thought. Sock it to the smug gits, right now.

And so she does, sort of. Notting Hell is full of gloriously precise colour from the new, moneyed Notting Hill - a place that, full though it is of bankers, young(ish) Tories and people who think that banana-yellow socks are totally cool and, like, out there, still fancies itself as the last word in hip. Johnson has a thousand ways with "yummy mummies" (the most puke-making words in the language), overpriced organic delis and posey minimalist architects; she seems to know - right down to the last icky strand of wheat-free courgette "spaghetti" - what it is that makes this skinny, competitive, narcissistic and thoroughly spoilt postcode tick, and I doubt that any sociologist, clipboard in hand, could have done a better job on the bare detail.

But a proper, satisfying satire it is not. For one thing, Johnson still lives in Notting Hill and is obviously quite fond of the place. (And who can blame her, when she has a fat book deal and the key to a communal garden?) For another, judging by its cute little cover, her novel is being marketed to women who, while they might enjoy the odd titter at the expense of cashmere-clad pipe cleaners that don't eat carbs, protein, lactose or anything at all from Asda, would probably take fright at the full (or even the half-full) Swiftian deal. The real reason for the softness of its bite, however, is that Johnson rather lacks a plot. A few characters do have affairs, it's true, but otherwise the major excitement is a row that blows up when an American resident decides to build a garage.

At least Johnson's narrators are very likeable. The story is told by two women, Mimi, a freelance journalist (who seems to be the author), and Clare, who runs a garden design business and is married to Gideon, an architect (who sounds like the über-minimalist John Pawson). Mimi is funny, fertile and hard-up (her house was inherited by her husband and is on the "wrong" side of the square). Clare is anally retentive, unable to get pregnant and pretty much lolling in lolly (her house has underfloor heating and a retractable roof). Mimi has an affair with a banker called Si Kasparian, but her husband doesn't mind because he's posh. Clare has an affair with, so far as I could tell, a basting syringe. Along the way, they both make lots of trips to Fresh & Wild.

It's a book that will be much leafed through in media London (it's not just that everyone will be trying to work out who is who; a few people - Ruby Wax, Emma Freud - even appear as themselves). Elsewhere, it may cause some bewilderment. I read several choice bits to my mother, down from the north, and she looked at me like I'd finally lost the plot. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that, if yoga mats and Dosa dresses have made even a peripheral blip on your radar, you'll find some of Johnson's lines pretty funny. You may even take her characters' foibles as a timely warning of how easy it is to lose sight of all the important things here in the Big Smoke (this week, I am trying really hard not to be a Clare and turn the punnet of damsons I got at the farmers' market into a fetish object). But if not, queasiness and confusion will be yours.

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