Possession AS Byatt (Chatto & Windus £13.95) In the gentle, somewhat muddy sense, Possession is declared to be ‘A Romance’ , or what imaginative truths the human heart is capable of when captivated by its object. What such an arcane euphemism cannot hope to disguise, however, is the vital and polluting role a cheque book or a grave-robbing spade plays in the simple discovery as to whether a mid-Victorian poet and a pre-feminist fairy teller did, in fact, swap bodily fluids during the year 1859, with dire consequences to their own lives, and those who research them.
Byatt really knows her stuff. Much effort has been expended on meticulous authentication of two entirely invented characters - through description, correspondence, poetry, natural history, social attitudes, etc - to the point where one is entitled to believe they actually existed. By comparison, her modern plunderers are almost resentfully pale, literally ransacking the evidence for this ‘amour fou’. But the dead are finally exhumed, albeit never to rest in peace again. A raw, and ruthlessly thorough excursion into the bleakness of contemporary relationships and, therefore. how exciting the past is to those who have so uselessly lost it. (Chris Lloyd)
Evenings at Monglnl’s Russell Lucas (Heinemann £12.95) The ten stories in Russell Lucas’s first selection centre on life in Bombay in the 1940s and 1950s. They contain a colourful array of characters from prostitutes and gigolos, to millionaires and leprous down-and-outs, and give a kaleidoscopic vision of life in India during this period.
The stories range from the fantastic to the seedy: a levitating young boy becomes the greatest spin-bowler in the world; a bored wife discovers an outlet for her sexual desires in the form of an unimpressive gigolo; a beautiful young man finally rids himself of his sexual jinx (in the form of his mother) and a leper and a dwarf fall in love. My favourite was ‘Keep Smiling’, in which an ageing womaniser and millionaire sinks into poverty and nostalgia. Consumed with a passion for an old ﬂame that is manifestly doomed, his tragic end is poignantly described by Lucas.
Lucas’s characters are humanely and warmly drawn, and his vivid tales are both entertaining and amusing. Evenings at Mongini’s is an exotic mix of reality and fantasy, low-life and high-life, and a real pleasure to read. (Ann Vinnicombe)
DEAD POET’S SOBRIETY
By the Rivers oi Babylon Jorge de Sena (Polygon £7.95). This, the first collection of the author’s short
The Neon Bible, John Kennedy Toole (Viking £12.95).
The success at John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published novel A Confederacy oi Dances lelt thousands at readers bemoanlng his suicide and pining tor more at his dry wit. Now, over two decades alter he gassed himseli with exhaust fumes, his only other known novel has been published.
For years, The Neon Bible lay dark in a drawer, tiercely guarded by Toole's mother, who warded oil the legal wrangling: ot acquisitlve relatives. On her death, however, despite her last wishes, the book has been iished irom obscurity, emerging as a trash, remarkably polished work by the 16-year-old Toole who wrote It tor a competition.
It tells a very simple story, laid vulnerany beiore us by the young voice at David, who starts with his early childhood in smailtown America, and brings us up to the hour when he llrst leaves home and heads Into the unknown. The intervening decade, tor all the mlldness oi its telling, is unusually eventful tor a quiet, mannerly boy brought up in the Fortles.
To set the ball rolling, iamlly lortunes go into decline. Father loses his lob and Is torced to move to a rackety
wooden house which creaks with the wind and slumps turther down the hillside with every rainstorm. Nevertheless lite is pleasant lorthe serious child who amuses himseli by playing trains on the sloping tioors of his home. But domestic equilibrium is jolted by the arrival at Aunt Mae, mother’s colourtul, pertumed sister, who doesn’t hit it oil too well with her ruddy-necked brother-ln-law.
A brilliant apparition with low-cut dresses and unnaturally blonde hair for a ripe-aged woman, she brings a vivid humour and warmth into David's lite. As an ex-slnger who winks at man in the street. she draws pity and contempt irom both parents. David, though. cannot see why, and welcomes her
open-armed as a butter against lather's increasing moodlness.
Then war hits America. Father is dratted to ltaly and Aunt Mae returns in triumph to the local boards. Therealter, changes escalate. From the arrival ot the telegram announcing tather’s death, mother is an altered woman, withdrawn, unseeing, and eventually insane; meanwhile, Aunt Mae cannot resist the call ot brighter city lights. As she sets oil to remake her name, whispers oi mother's madness drill to the town, llnally reaching the preacher. A pious bigot with as much charity as a hangman with a headache, his obsession with locking up the social mlsttt is tired, and like a carrlon crow circling its victim, he begins to close in on the tilted tarmhouse.
From trusting innocence through tear and disillusionment, The Neon Bible slowly draws in its walls. crushing the wide-eyed gentleness ot its narrator. A tluldly told tale, ills strung tightly together by sharp detail and quiet comment. With subtlety and a gltted eye tor nuance, Toole traces the onset ot breakdown and psychosis, shadowing his work with an ever-darkening loneliness and eventual despair. When the climax is reached. it is shocking - at llrst sight entirely out of character; almost as unpredictable as Toole's own death.
fiction to appear in English. is a useful. eclectic introduction to his work. De Sena. who died in 1978. regarded poetry as his real vocation, and it is the descriptive elements of the 11 stories here which are most satisfying. The subject matter ranges widely: expertly-evoked pictures of Portugal and its erstwhile African colonies; incidents in the lives of St Paul and the Venerable Bede; an amusing jeu d ’esprit about a genie inhabiting a tree in an Indian village. Reminiscent, in their metaphysical speculations and hints of magical realism, of Borges and Dino Buzzati, these tales nevertheless display a warm, at times sentimental, humanity. As de Sena said, ‘The ' tragedy of Portuguese literature is that is written in Portuguese’: had it been Spanish or French, he would, on the evidence here, have been far better known. (Stuart Bathgate)
LOVE IN AVOID
Certlllcate ol Absence Sylvia
Molloy (Polygon £8.95). You know you’re in trouble when a novel starts with the sentence ‘She begins to write a story that will not leave her alone.’ Yes, this is one of those self-referential thingies: a book about writing a book, which ends up becoming the book which the central character is trying to write. Originally published in Spanish in 1981, the book concerns the narrator's reflections on her childhood and relationships with her two lovers, Vera and Renata. The writing is elegant (the author co-translated), intelligent and at times insightful; but, despite the
book’s brevity, its pace is slow, almost funereal. Certificate of Absence goes nowhere fast; and says very little. well. (Stuart Bathgate)
BEETLE m A HYSTACK
Stlll Lite with insects Brian Kelley (The Bodlcy Head £10.95) Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; Elwyn Farmer marks time by the creepy crawlies he unearths in his travels as a pest extermination researcher for a grain company. Looking back over his specimens he lets the past engulfhim. much as Proust did with a petit Madeleine. The comparison is not invidious; Kelley is as sensitive as skin, eloquently observant, and a rare writer. comically gifted. tragically inclined. Time passes slowly in this short. beautifully composed novel but it never stands still. Four American decades flit by butterfly-like as Elwyn metamorphoses from a post-war workaholic on the nerve of a
breakdown to a cancerous wrinkly. The mood is elegaic but this is no requiem. Still Life with Insects (what a clever title) is a celebration of the life of an ordinary man with an extraordinary hobby. Bottle it, as Elwyn would his precious bugs. (James Allan)
Harp John Gregory Dunne (Granta £13.99) ‘l-Iarp’ is derogatory shorthand for Irish Catholics living in America. Dunne, among whose lesser credits is the screenplay of Barbra Streisand’s defrosted turkey, A Star is Born, is a second generation American who wears his Paddyphilia like a Liberace suit. Harp is his autobiography of sorts. Prompted by family suicides, deaths, the murder of a niece, and his own close encounter with the Grim Reaper, it is part-diatribe, part-disclosure. Dunne’s sympathy with Lillian
WIN TWENTY COPIES OF OORBALS CHILDREN SEE P91
The List 23 March — 5 April 1990 as