Half-sister act

Our Father by Marilyn French Hamish Hamilton $272 I'VE never read a book so much like a stage play, so much so that it is hard not to wonder why Marilyn French conceived it as a novel in the first place.

The structure is that of a classical drama: three acts, carefully paralleled in themes and length, each ending on a stagy dramatic surprise which bursts out at the reader just as the curtain falls.

It's not just the structure. It's the claustrophobic lack of space too, with all the central action in its 450 pages crammed into the same cheerless house - a set designer's dream.

Even though the book's key events span 50 years, they're almost never recreated for us. Instead they are verbally described by one character to another in dramatic speeches. The subject, too, is artificial, a device dreamt up intellectually to show us something the author wants us to see.

The story is almost mythical; four half-sisters gather together in their wealthy father's home as he lies dying. Their hatred for each other is only surpassed by their hatred for him. As time slowly passes, the women are trapped in their father's vast house, forced to endure each other's company. Gradually they look back over their lives, begin to acknowledge traumatic secrets in the past and learn to understand and eventually love each other.

If that story outline sounds too convenient to be real - well, yes, it is implausible. A problem with the book is that its ideas are always more interesting than the characters themselves. They never managed, for me, to be any more than mouthpieces, there to debate issues of interest to the author.

The four sisters are carefully contrasted stereotypes: the cold intellectual Washington bureaucrat, the man-catching society snob, the half-caste and outcast lesbian feminist whose friends are poor but happy and finally the family-focused earth mother who is all heart and dreams of helping the developing world. And French expects us to believe these people are real? Oh dear.

It would help if the roles were interchanged occasionally in the course of the book - that on some issues the conservatives were surprisingly liberal or the woman with a heart of gold just once lost her temper and said something rude. That never happens.There is some masterful writing. French switches from one woman's perspective to another with a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues which are both revealing and convincingly naturalistic.

She's at her best with detail. A sudden striking image or the description of a posture or habitual movement to show feeling is far more powerful than laboured conversations in which the sisters take it in turns to bare their souls to each other with unlikely readiness and fluency.

There's also the fundamental problem that wicked witches are usually far more compelling characters than saints. Consequently as the sisters steadily lose their initial viciousness and blossom forth into forgiveness and charity, they become progressively annoying.

The final section in particular, filled with relentless joy, hugs and sanctimonious cries of ''How good to have found my sisters!'' would be so much better left unwritten.