For those who find Muriel Spark too whimsical or Beryl Bainbridge too smoothly jocular or Barbara Pym too mild-mannered, here now is Ursula Holden--a lean chronicler of sorry lives who makes those three ironic Britishers seem downright sentimental. Holden's first three novels--coming to the U.S. as a single volume, Fallen Angels--are a monument to depression, a panorama of calamity, a coldstaring parade of young middle- and lower-class women crippled by neglectful mothers, selfish men, and their own wretched wants. In Endless Race, Pauline Jeffcott is raised by nannies instead of parents, outgrown by her beloved ambitious brother, and winds up as a downtrodden mother's helper in postwar London, ""a drifter who used too much eye makeup""; her one hope--Jock, an alcoholic, fancydancing laborer from Glasgow who gives her good times, bad times, a baby, a basement home. . . and then burns to death. In String Horses, the two unloved teenage daughters of a divorced family-planning consultant grow up fast when their seductive school caretaker lures them to a bizarre welfare summer camp: he rapes them, then kills himself, and the elder girl--pregnant--quickly marries an Irishman and dies in childbirth. And in Turnstiles, pregnant Ruth Cash (daughter of a foul bawd) is abandoned by her egotistical writer husband, then befriended by her bisexual brother-in-law Logan--but Logan dies in a boating accident, Ruth's baby is diagnosed as autistic, and, just when the chain of unloving seems about to be broken, the much-improved child dies in a freak accident. Misery upon misery, delivered with no tears or sighs, in brisk, short sentences and swatches of openwound dialogue: Holden captures the worst moments of ordinary life with undeniable vividness. But, though String Horses flirts with symbolism (horses galore) and black comedy, there's a lack of texture in early Holden, a reportorial slice-of-life drone that borders on clinical case study. In The Cloud Catchers, however, Holden seems at last to relax, transforming her latest tale of woe into a Dickensian fable. Eve Joyne is an Irish country girl who follows when her cousin Eileen (""I'm off to the razzle-dazzle"") deserts the wretched backwoods Joyne household--brain-damaged brother, bovine mother, incestuous Dad. In Dublin, Eve (with her pet hen) finds love--in the person of a surpassingly sweet, intellectual tinker she calls ""Skin""; but when Skin is rendered comatose by a kick from his own horse, Eve heads for England to sell perfume and dabble in sin with a married playboy. Coincidence abounds, fortunes recover, and a happy ending (!) awaits--marriage to a recovered Skin, a ceremony only slightly marred by Eve's black bridesmaid and the perfectly timed drop-dead death of Eve's dad. Holden's basic materials here are just as grim as ever, her tone just as curtly detached; but the ironic cosmic overview makes The Cloud Catchers bigger-than-life as well as slice-of-life--the best work yet from a promising writer just beginning to work out and beyond her bedrock base of stony bitterness.