DELVING into a Jilly Cooper novel is rather like gatecrashing a shabby, chic period-house party in the Shires, with pot-luck supper dishes, lashings of gin and gossip fit to topple governments, if not entire nations.
Like the guests at such a do, the characters in Cooper's latest novel Jump! are never less than compelling.
With a talent to rival Dickens for matching names with characteristics (could Scrooge be anything but a miser, or Tiny Tim a woebegone waif?) Cooper's cast includes Woody, the delectable tree surgeon and his vicar boyfriend Niall; Shade Murchieson, a cashmere-clad arms dealer with a penchant for rough sex; and shrewd City slicker Shagger Simmons. Then there's Old Mrs Malmesbury who saves badgers, keeps geese and habitually gets the wrong end of the stick; Rafiq Khan, a magnificently moody Pakistani jockey with matchless looks and militant tendencies; MFH (Master of Fox Hounds) and braying martinet Lady Crowe, and dozens more. Not to mention the equally wonderfully named animals such as Furious, the delinquent racehorse, Bullydozer, the massive Irish gelding, and Chisholm, the incontinent village goat (named, incidentally, after a critic who dared to diss one of Cooper's earlier novels).
However, unlike so many densely populated blockbusters there's never a fear of getting the characters mixed up -- such is Cooper's portraiture a single sentence can convey their very essence.
Set in Cooper's beloved Cotswolds, the book opens with its heroine, Etta, running around after her ailing bully of a husband Sampson and entertaining his mistress Blanche, who regularly calls to fuss over her one-time captain of industry lover and belittle his wife.
Mindful of Etta's generous nature, her devotion to animal charities and her weakness for the odd flutter, the villainous Sampson cuts her off without a penny, while bequeathing his mistress £50,000 a year for life. When he dies, Etta finds herself at the mercy of her almost comically obnoxious adult kids Martin and Carrie, who promptly flog the beautiful old family home and install their hapless mother in a hideous little bungalow where she is expected to spend the rest of her life running errands, minding grandkids and generally being invisible, as befits her newly widowed status.
So far, so dreadful: but in Cooper's landscapes, there's a silver lining to every Cotswolds cloud. Here it's to be found in the shape of a horrifically maltreated horse which Etta finds left for dead in the woods.
With the help of her new neighbours (among them the brusque but intensely charismatic Valent Edwards, an ex-top-flight footballer and multi-millionaire widower in his mid-60s ) the horse-mad Etta nurses the animal back to health and names her Mrs Wilkinson.
A DNA test subsequently reveals that Mrs Wilkinson is in fact an impeccably bred racehorse from the stables of one Ralph Harvey-Holden, an odious and thoroughly disreputable trainer whose stables mysteriously went up in flames at around the time Mrs Wilkinson was dumped in the woods.
To establish the horse's rightful ownership, a David-and-Goliath courtroom battle ensues, with the financial might of Harvey-Holden and his mountainous wife Jude the Obese pitted against the slight, impecunious Etta.
In true Cooper fashion, Goliath is duly toppled and a triumphant Etta forms a syndicate among the villagers to groom Mrs Wilkinson for equine stardom.
This development serves to lead Cooper joyfully back to the turf of her earlier Rutland Chronicle bonkbusters (which practically redefined the genre back in the Eighties) as Mrs Wilkinson proceeds to ride rings around the opposition on the hallowed gallops of Cheltenham, Aintree et al.
Meanwhile, the gruff but wonderfully kind Valent, finding precious little solace in his brittle young trophy girlfriend Bonny, has taken to dropping in on Etta of an evening with bottles of wine and gourmet takeaways; and over their cosy fireside suppers they discover a shared love of poetry, classical music, easy chats and companionable silence. As she falls hopelessly in love, not even the racing triumphs of her beloved Mrs Wilkinson can ease Etta's heartache -- for how can a fusty little pensioner compete with beauty in its lusty prime?
Cooper's fictional world of brash arrivistes, charming upper-class cads and endless jolly hockeysticks totty might be easy to mock, but the woman is no fool. Though almost absurdly self-deprecating (fellow novelist Joanna Trollope once shrewdly observed that "she [Cooper] does her damnedest to prevent the world from seeing how clever and cultured she really is") with 16 best-selling novels, 27 works of non-fiction, four children's books and an OBE for services to literature under her belt, Cooper must know her worth -- certainly the latest in her stable of aces reflects it.
Witty, irreverent, sometimes remarkably moving, Jump! is a worthy addition to Cooper's chronicle of winners. Roll on her next champion nag.
Sunday Indo Living