Pinning down some novels in a review is like trying to catch a dust-mote with a pair of tweezers. So insubstantial are they, so given to sudden minnowish movements that one despairs of the task at hand.
A Stairway to Paradise, by Madeleine St John is just such a novel. Let the title pass – nothing is to be gained from snarling at it. This book raises to an art form the task of converting local habitations and names into airy nothings, and it hardly needs saying that in so doing it’s doing things exactly the wrong way around.
At the heart of this delicate little piece of fluff there is a love triangle: Alex and Andrew went to Oxford together, and now, some decades later, Andrew has a failed matrimonial experiment behind him and Alex’s marriage survives only as a means of providing a stable household for his two children. The men have a fair bit in common: both have British reserve in spades, both are emotionally stunted, both play squash and smoke the occasional joint. And both are madly in love with Barbara.
Barbara is never really described to us – we get only snippets (‘Big brown girl, brown eyes’), but from the effect she has on every heterosexual man who claps eyes on her it seems fair to assume that she’s a sort of cross between Botticelli’s Venus and Dita von Teese.
The ménange à trois is an enduring and rather fascinating element in fiction: the tension, the jealousy, the uncertainty… in theory, it can’t fail but provide gripping material.
Somehow, A Stairway to Paradise fails to grip: you’re constantly curious about where it’s going, but by the end you notice that it failed to embark, much less arrive anywhere. Puzzling, to say the least.
Prose about drifting characters who cannot make up their minds inevitably seems meandering and indecisive itself – and when an ending shrouded in mystery is added, matters are hardly improved.
Stairway reads like a tangential episode of a greater whole: a frustrating experience when the whole is nowhere in evidence. This is not a long or a challenging novel: it took me a pinch over two hours to read the whole thing, and while I don’t begrudge the time, I’m absolutely unable to spot St John’s intentions. There’s entertainment to be had from the effete characters who sprinkle their conversations with superfluous French, but there’s no closure. You want more, but most emphatically not more of the same.