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Returning Angel.

In the spring of last year I went to a party for the presentation of book prize. There I was introduced to Salley Vickers, who told me that she had just written a book called Miss Garnet's Angel. I smiled and nodded as one does on these occasions: "I hope that you get it published."

"It has been already," she answered, "by HarperCollins."
Being the administrator of The Booker Prize, I keep a close eye on what is happening in serious fiction. Three days later a copy of Vickers's book turned up. When I read it, I was swept away. It was quite outstandingly brilliant.

I persuaded my partner to read it, and he and his colleagues at John Sandoe Books, a small independent shop in Chelsea, West London, all shared my enthusiasm. They took it into stock, and in a short time it had sold 600 copies. Soon after Hatchards disposed of 1,500 copies and the word was spreading fast.

Various papers reviewed the book, and the New Statesman named it Book of the Year. Within months there was an American edition published, then the paperback. It became a bestseller by recommendation rather than marketing.

Many authors find the second novel that they write much more difficult than the first, and this is particularly true when the first one has been a great success. Consequently, those of us who enjoyed Vickers's first novel were waiting for its successor with great anticipation. Now, in the shape of Instances of the number 3 it has arrived.

One of the great pluses of the first book was the quality of the writing. The Times reported that: "Vickers writes like a haunted angel". And this is equally true of her new book. The reader glides through it effortlessly. The plot is simple, yet has an amazing amount of narrative power. As in real life, there is always something behind a particular character or action that is hinted at rather than crudely stated.

Bridget Hansome is married to Peter, who is killed in a motor accident early in the story. She is a dealer in antiques who buys most of her objects in France. During her absences Peter had an affair with Frances, who was introduced to him by a knowing sort of neighbour, Mickey.

Gradually from Peter's death onwards, Bridget learns the extent of the affair, but also how determined he was to remain committed to their marriage. She is initially surprised by this, "but then she herself, she had often speculated, was no more than a dramatic construction made up of fleeting feelings, idle introspections, vain wonderings- glimpses in the 'glass of fashion'."

Bridget and Frances meet and become uneasy allies. Early in the relationship Bridget says to her new friend: "A person- I expect you know this- isn't only flesh and blood. A person exists inside one, informing one's state of mind. There were whole weeks that Peter and I were apart - of course, you know that too! - So my system hasn't got the habit the difference. I keep expecting to come home and find him there. And when I don't, when I walk in and everything is as I left it, my system just thinks: 'Oh well, he'll be along later, what's all the fuss about?'"

There are many subtle twists when Zahin, who knew Peter and Frances, turns up at Bridget's house and infiltrates himself as a lodger, cleaner and then a much more important character than had seemed likely.

It is a wonderful thing when you have made a small contribution to the success of a book and it takes off in a big way. Inevitably I opened Instances of the number 3 with some concern that Vickers would not be able or ready to match the brilliance of her first book. I need not have worried. The quality of her second novel confirms that she will have a long and outstanding career in writing.

Martyn Goff, Play Magazine, The Times, 11-17 August 2001,


 
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