Saturday, 15 May 2010

A contemporary fairy-tale

It’s nearly 30 years since Barbara Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published to huge acclaim. Since then she’s produced just six more.

But her latest, Sex and Stravinsky, is well worth the wait. As work deadlines piled up, I kept promising myself one more chapter of this beguiling book before I rushed back to my desk.

At first glance, Oxford headteacher Caroline Silver is one of those annoying women who’s clever, beautiful and selfless. She’s an amazing cook, makes her own clothes and even transforms an old double-decker bus into an unconventional family home for her husband Josh and their ballet-obsessed daughter Zoe. Poor Zoe provides a memorable comic interlude when she’s forced to endure the school French exchange trip from hell.

But Caroline’s life is far from perfect. She’s saddled with a ghastly mother (Josh dubs her “the witch woman”) who favours Caroline’s self-centred sister, derides her efforts to please and bleeds her dry.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Josh Silver’s first love has problems of her own. Hattie Thomas is a children’s author who spends her days writing in the minimalist house designed by her forceful architect husband. Their sulky teenage daughter wishes her mother would “literally drop dead,” there’s a mysterious new lodger in the cottage at the end of the garden and Hattie's dissolute brother has vanished off the face of the earth.

The novel steps up a gear when the narrative switches to South Africa, where Trapido was born and brought up. Her account of Josh’s adoption by two generous-hearted human rights activists is deeply moving, while her description of the vast South African skies and searing heat makes you want to leap straight on a plane.

In many ways Sex and Stravinsky is a contemporary fairy-tale that shifts back and forth in time and across continents. Although the whirlwind exchange of partners as the novel races to its conclusion is far from convincing, Trapido’s seventh novel is a dazzling achievement. It’s beautifully-written, deftly-plotted and moves skilfully from domestic drama to global themes, and back again.

Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido. Published by Bloomsbury, £18.99

Emma's rating - ****