22 APRIL 2000, Page 33

How not to do it

D. J. Taylor

THE CLEMATIS TREE by Ann Widdecombe Weidenfeld, £9.99, pp. 277 Back in the early 1980s, down from university and avid for pin-money, I used to read manuscripts off a literary agent's slushpile at £15 a time. It was irredeemably tedious work — slab after slab of fat white typescript with all the allure of lumps of suet — and yet useful in a way, for it taught me a lesson that was later to come in handy: how not to write a book. No disrespect to Miss Widdecombe to say that The Clematis Tree took me straight back to the Pimlico sofa on which most of this work was done, as well as rekindling the same feelings of mingled awe, exasperation and resentment.

We are all grown-up people and pre- tence would be futile. This novel would not have been published did its author not dou- ble up as shadow home secretary. My wife's copy of the National Childbirth Trust's Putney branch newsletter has more liveli- ness. On the plus side, it is a well-meaning book about a serious subject — a couple whose young son is severely disabled by a road accident — written with great sympa- thy and compassion. In fact, compared to some of the topics favoured by her younger contemporaries (blokes, shags, flats and so on) Miss Widdecombe is a kind of parlia- mentary Tolstoy. And yet as bleakly sympa- thetic page succeeds bleakly sympathetic page — Hardy, you feel, would have blinked at the serial bad luck visited on the cast — I found myself jotting down a sub- stantial catalogue of lessons learned in transit.

1. Establish your point of view from the start. Though most of the action is seen through the eyes of husband Mark, The Clematis Tree begins at a christening party attended by hordes of relatives, all of whom speak in the same way, make the same gestures and actively resist differenti- ation. Nothing wrong with a sense of per- spective, of course — the chink of glasses, the rolling lawn, the smiling faces etc but novels need an immediate vantage point and they need it immediately. 2. Implausible signposting and establishing detail irk the reader. As when Mark bends over his daughter's cradle to remark:

You're the sex we wanted, you're healthy and you complete our family. You're perfect and so is Jeremy ... You are loved, wanted and set one day to inherit your Grandad's for- tune. Meanwhile, it's a great partnership we've got, Pippa baby.

Somehow the effect is made worse by Mark pronouncing the last sentence 'in a Bronx accent'.

3. There is no such thing as 'realistic' dia- logue. Reported speech either works or it doesn't. Any attempt to reproduce accu- rately the kind of thing people say in con- versation is doomed to failure. Thus the reader's heart sinks when someone march- es up to say, 'Hello, brother-in-law, you're making me feel guilty. Do you or Claire need any help?' It is exactly what people of this social stamp would say at a party, and should therefore have been resisted: stapling characters to the page rather than letting them breathe.

4. Let the dialogue do the work. Speech ought to work on its own. No need to say that somebody says something 'automati- cally' or 'apologetically' if you've already implied that in the words attributed to them. As it is, Miss Widdecombe's charac- ters can be found 'angrily' telling people to shut up or observing that 'it's no good' with `despair in their voices'.

And so on, through a riot of incidental horrors — the marital tensions, the school bus smash, the untethered wheelchair — to ultimate redemption. Patronage is one of the shabbiest of book reviewer's vices, of course, but oh dear, this took some getting through, and Miss Widdecombe is getting £50,000 for it. Meanwhile, I hope The Clematis Tree enjoys a wide circulation. Not only is its theme — coping with the bad things in life — a welcome change in a landscape dominated by flatland debauch- ery, but it will serve as an invaluable how- to manual for many a young person contemplating authorship as a career. If not perhaps in quite the way she intended, Ann Widdecombe has written an exem- plary book.