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Smart comedy of wacky family

THE TRAVELLING HORN PLAYER By Barbara Trapido Viking 245 pp., $24.95

During an interview in the kitchen of Barbara Trapido's home in Oxford, England, several years ago, it didn't take me more than three cups of tea to discover that she gets as much fun out of her novels as her readers do.

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Her main writing tools are her laser-beam observation, a fast computer, and an even quicker sense of humor. Before leaving her kitchen, I looked back to make sure I hadn't left too much of myself behind for her to feed on in her next book!

"The Travelling Horn Player" is her fifth novel in 16 years and bears a welcome resemblance to her earlier ones, especially the Whitbread Prize-winning "Brother of the More Famous Jack," some of whose characters reappear in this one.

This is a rollicking, bitter-sweet slice of English life in the comic tradition of Muriel Spark and Mary Wesley, although Trapido earns an R-rating for her inclusion - albeit insightful and sympathetic - of student promiscuity, abortion, HIV, adultery, and child sexual abuse.

The traveling horn player of the title belongs to the German romantic school of poetry admired by two characters in the story - a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Lydia Dent and a middle-aged novelist, Jonathan Goldman, who has reluctantly become her unofficial adviser on an essay assignment.

The earnest, irrepressible Lydia dies in a traffic accident outside Jonathan's "bolt-hole" in London, but her spirit continues to drift in and out of the tangled lives of several dysfunctional families, especially Jonathan's.

As we're swept from highly polished comedy to perceptive exploration of mother-daughter and father-daughter relationships, it helps to know one's Austen, Conrad, and Shakespeare, and to have a working knowledge of the British vernacular, including words like "tranny" (transistor radio), "Aga" (stove), "knock off" (steal), and "barley sugar" (spirals of hard candy).

Even when Trapido's characters are at their wackiest, she never surrenders control of them. She loses steam only near the end when sanity demands that she draw the strings of her plot together, and we actually miss the sly, chuckle-a-minute subversion!

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No one will identify more readily with this novel than those who feel their lives are also like a deflating balloon hissing, darting, and then collapsing in an unreachable corner. But they'll take comfort from Trapido's very real concern for her characters, and the fact that she always has enough breath to blow hope back into their dizzy lives and ours!

* Kim Shippey is a former news anchor with the BBC in London.

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