A needle-sharp novel about moneyed Britons

A Case of Knives, by Candia McWilliams. New York: Beech Tree-William Morrow. 266 pp. $16.95. Things haven't gotten much better for lovers in the cold climate the English novelist Nancy Mitford wrote about. They may even be worse if Candia McWilliams is accurate in her needle-sharp novel about the highly educated, highly self-indulgent moneyed class, a class that spends nearly all its time, intellect, and character in manipulation of its various members. The goal is affection, but love among these people is usually a mask word for desperation.

McWilliams's first book, a blistering piece of writing, tells a simple story of repressed passion and perverseness. But her actors and her language are anything but simple. The characters are wound like clocks; only the polished escapement of class and education keeps them from snapping out of their cases. And her choice of words is pleasurably recondite. You get the feeling there's an OED in the room with her at all times. You'll probably need one as well, unless you can digest words like ``benthic'' and ``meniscus.'' Her sentences are clever; some of them rival the cryptic clues of an English crossword in their devilishness. And her metaphors can be many layers deep.

Of the main characters, the children's heart surgeon, Sir Lucas, begins the story. He is a Polish immigrant, of indistinct Jewishness and blinding Anglophilia. He is conniving for a girl to marry to a young man who has become his object. The girl he finds is a complex person with connivations of her own. Sir Lucas is pursued in turn by several others: another woman, Anne; the London tabloid press, which makes him a hero; and a band of anti-vivisectionist activists who want to kill him.

American novel readers will find ``A Case of Knives'' a little obscure in spots, very English (or may I say Brittle). Here, for example, are two friends, one weeping pitiably. The other counsels, ``Don't wipe your eyes on your brocade, it must scratch.'' You don't find sympathy like that on this side of the Atlantic.

The conclusion is exciting, if a little grisly. When these people get fed up with self-control, they, well, they overcompensate. But along the way they do make trenchant observations. ``The heart,'' says the surgeon, ``is an emblem we understand. It is proof love need not be literate.... It stands for all we beat for against the tide of what is sure.'' A definition not in the OED.

McWilliams's husband is an Oxford don and a specialist on the poet George Herbert, whose quotation gives the title. ``My thoughts are all a case of knives, wounding my heart....''

Jeff Danziger is on the Monitor staff.

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