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A Writer's Refuge by Pamela Norris

Salley Vicker's is an audacious writer, who dares to tread where few in this apostate age would wish to venture. At a time when the Chuurch of England is struggling to persuade its dwindling congregation that faith is still relevant in the twenty-first century, Vickers writes quietly and confidently about the relationship between nature, humanity and the numinous. Her first novel, Miss Garnet's Angel, describing the spiritual odyssey of an ageing spinster, was an unepected bestseller. Her second, Instances of the Number 3, was equally gripping, not least because one of teh characters, like Hamlet's father, keeps popping back from purgatory to sort out unfinished business. In Mr Golightly's Holiday, she sets out to revise Milton by explaining the ways of man to God. The result is a brilliantly funny roman à clef, simultaneously funny, sad and surprising.

The novel is set in the fictitious village of Great Calne Ion Devon, where a successful business man has rented a holiday cottage. Mr Golightly is the author of a work of dramatic fiction which has, over the years, become the basis of a global enterprise. Protected a team of loyal helpers, his secretary Martha and the troubleshooters Mike and Bill, the writer has become increasingly remote from his audience, but as sales of his book fall off alarmingly, he recognises that it is time to update his work, perhaps in the style of the television soaps which, he learns with astonishment, are now the favourite entertainment of millions of his former readers. Armed with a laptop and The Shorter English Dictionary, he sits down to rewrite his drama, only to find himself caught up in the real-life soap opera of the inhabitants of Great Calne. And, as so often happens when one is on holiday from routine concerns. Mr Golightly finds his mind returning obsessively to events of his own life, and in particular the catastrophic death of his beloved son.

While Mr Golightly frets, like a heartbroken parent, over where it all went wrong, his neighbour, Ellen Thomas, is experiencing her own equivalent of the road to Calvary. Singled out, like Moses, by a ‘sweet and terrible’ voice that issues from a golden bush, Ellen testifies to love in the only way available to her, by sheltering an escaped convict, and listening to his broken tale of suffering and loss. In the meantime, Bill, a handsome youth with impressive biceps and long fair hair, has a close encounter with a virginal barmaid, Mary.

Despite these weighty themes, Vickers’s novel is as fresh and hopeful as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and for similar reasons. Like the soap operas Mr Golightly struggles to emulate, she relies on a succession of rapid, dramatic scenes to carry the action, and is not afraid to mingle tragedy with slapstick. The village setting allows her to draw on a full cast of characters, who bicker, drink and defraud with all the vigour of the inhabitants of Gomorrah. She can mimic the idiom of a range of speakers, from Jackson the jobbing builder to the woman who runs the beauty parlour, and has the pace and timing to make the most of her comic effects. More unusually, she seems as comfortable discussing metaphysics as she is with estimating the likely effects of a bikini wax (Brazilian-style), and can even inveigle our sympathy for Mr Golightly’s main business rival, an incendiary gentlemen with eyes like ruined stars.

Vickers’s strengths can veer into weaknesses. She has a fondness for gnomic sayings which don’t always survive close scrutiny. The comedy can sometimes collapse into caricature, and her prose occasionally falters in the struggle to describe intense feeling. But these are minor flaws. Vickers is never less than original and, when conveying her understanding of human frailty and potential, she can be sublime. Her characters find solace in the countryside from the pains of existence, and Vickers depicts its glories with a painter’s eye. Depressed by human malevolence. Mr Golightly seeks refuge on a tor above Dartmoor and surveys ‘the green and brown and gold chequered moorland floor’ and the reservoir ‘where light shone like polished silver on the water’. All this, he observes, is good. ‘So what was wrong? Why were nature’s creations so gracious and vital compared to humankind?’ But as Mr Golightly discovers, grace still survives in the human world. Salley Vickers’s splendid novel is ample proof of that.

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