Gardam (The Pineapple Bay Hotel) delights in setting off the mad impulses of her characters--with results that often approach antic caricature--and surrounding the resulting helter-skelter with heavy atmospheric effects. Here the scenes for odd frolic are the spouting sea by a small English village between world wars and the enchanted garden of the local mental institution. Rosalie is the owner of this mansion-cum-asylum, a wizened matriarch with the ""head of a wooden little monkey."" who dreams of a love lost long ago. Meanwhile, her disinherited children--Charles and lumpish Binkie--are receiving a visit from Elinor, who some years ago turned down a careful proposal by Charles (he would be marrying much beneath his station) and married instead dapper little bank manager Kenneth Marsh, hellfire preacher of the Primal Saints. Dazzled by the possibilities of public exposure, Marsh soon has his Saints booming out hymns before bathers on the sands, which seems to carry him to an even saltier billow of confidence--into the bedroom of cheeky, ""pudding soft"" maid Lydia, who tells him off right and proper. But not before the pair are observed; by Elinor--who lunges off to cavort nudely before undersexed Charles; and by Elinor's eight-year-old daughter Margaret--who splashes on through the sea, sick and furious. And that night Rosalie, an old Queen Lear, will change her will while lightning flashes and rescue-boat rockets roar outside. Odd doings--with an epilogue twelve years later that shows how these lives will have been snipped and tidied--but Gardam's immaculate specificity of incongruous detail and earth-toned dialogue gives the gloriously implausible a haunting, entertaining substance.