Over the jumps once more with Jilly
Jump! JILLY COOPER (Bantam Press, £18.99)
Jilly Cooper is back where she belongs with her new novel Jump!, a story set in the world of equestrian jumping and horse racing. The 728-page book begins with Etta, caring for her increasingly failing husband, Sampson, who still finds the energy to bully and belittle her despite her looking after him so selflessly. They have lived in a beautiful house in Dorset called Bluebell Hill for the last 45 years, but with Sampson's death, Etta's gloriously unfeeling and selfish grown children, Martin and Carrie, decide to sell the house to pay the duty tax on their inheritance. Cooper writes incredibly enjoyable villains and Martin and Carrie are no exception.
Sampson has left everything to his children -- not trusting his wife's generosity when it came to animal shelters and charities and being an absolute skinflint -- and adds insult to injury by leaving one of his many mistresses a £50,000-a-year living.
Etta is forced to move in with her son and his hideous snob of a wife, Romy, and their two brattish grandchildren. They ensconce her in a soulless, dark modern-built cottage and treat her as a live-in nanny.
Naturally, Etta is devastated with her new life until she discovers an injured horse in the nearby woods. The animal-lover in her nurses the horse back to health, whereupon she discovers it is actually a well-bred racehorse.
At this point, the whole village gets involved to put the horse into training, which naturally incurs the wrath of trainer-owner Rupert Campbell-Black, a recurring Cooper character who makes a welcome return in this book (Etta harbours a crush on him). When Rupert's goddaughter Amber enters the horse in the Grand National, this becomes International Velvet for grown-ups.
This book has the usual epic cast that all Cooper's books have and an impressive cast of animals too. It wouldn't be a Cooper book without backstabbing, conniving, love affairs and people getting their comeuppances, and all of these trademarks are present and correct.
But this is the first of Cooper's books that I have read that has an elegiac tone to it and the mix of big blockbuster and thoughtfulness is a pleasing combination. Her musings on the joys of nature, gardening and animals are almost Wordsworthian at times.
The book has an extra depth and surprising emotional impact as Cooper writes about Etta's experiences of ageing, caring for a sick husband and becoming a widow as Cooper's own husband suffers from Parkinson's disease.
While Cooper's books are full of characters with turquoise eyes or 'charismatic bastards', they are also the creative output of a mature woman who writes with wisdom and kindness, which is more rare than you might think in the grinding mill of commercial fiction. For this reason, Cooper's individual and quirky charm is a heartening buoy on a sea of bland commercial fiction.