Holden's first four novels--all of which appeared here in 1979, three of them in a single volume called Fallen Angels--were grim, ironic, understated tales of British middle-class misery and survival, each of them sharply centered on a youngish heroine. But this new book of woe upon woe, though often enlivened by Holden's beady-eyed powers of observation, lacks that central focus; what's more, the balance between naturalism and fable (so nicely handled in The Cloud Catchers) falters, and Holden's prose has become a bit more self-consciously writer-y. At first the protagonist here seems to be divorcÃ‰e Maris, who has been tending her dying father with no help from her sarcastic, blowsy ex-barmaid mother Coral (the old man's second, much-younger wife); also on the premises are Maris' asthmatic, withdrawn little son Arthur and a forceful, lazy nanny/housekeeper named Mrs. Chat (who arranges the grocery lists to suit her betting losses). But when the old man dies and leaves his money in trust for his grandson, the focus switches to Arthur--especially when the boy's runaway father reappears as a handyman (in a children's-book-style coincidence) and, with Marls' weary consent, takes Arthur off to live with him in London. The rest of the novel then deals with the uneasy relationship between son and father (who's now night-clerk in a sleazy hotel) and with Arthur's tentative reachings-out for friendships among his new schoolmates--an effort which leads, in a highly contrived manner, to Arthur's losing a foot and to the death of a baby. (There is, however, an upbeat fade-out.) Unfortunately, Holden is a lot better with put-upon young women than with children: Arthur is never quite believable. And the disjointed shifts of emphasis and tone throughout rule out much momentum or involvement. Unsure of whether it's a fairy-tale or a case study--talented work (icily fine dialogue, starkly strong atmosphere), but without the distinctive, raw power of Holden's previous novels.