Hot Stuff?

Frances Cornford slaps on the suntan oil, sticks on the shades and settles down with a selection of sizzling summer reading

Few would believe that reviewing a batch of hot and sticky beach reading was difficult. After all. a succession of undemanding reads with pacy plots and a good bit ofsex thrown in is guaranteed to induce a holiday mood. Yet after a week of the stuff, I felt more as though I’d developed a severe case ofsunstroke and a retsina-induced hangover.

Kate (she of Dynasty fame) O'Mara‘s When She Was Bad. . . She Was Wicked seemed the best of the bunch though that might be because I read it first. It's a competently-told tale ofa beautiful. ageing but still successful actress with a toyboy lover (sound like anyone we know'?). into whose life walks a long-lost adopted daughter who. though brought up by. shock! horrorl. ‘ordinary citizens‘. has managed to turn into a prize luvvie all the same. After 400 pages padded out with media-speak. the daughter jets ofro a career in Hollywood, leaving the reader with the terrible realisation that this is merely the first instalment of I a saga which will run and run. and run. . .

Fortunately. very fortunately. the same is not true of Elizabeth Harrington‘s The Corporate Wife. This 5()()-page tome follows the standard Mills and Boon plot of

Kate O’Mara

man-and-woman-irresistibly- mutually-attracted-but-too-proud-to-admit-it- until-they-finally-bonk-each-other-senseless-on- the-last-page. The standard method ofexpanding an M&B l40-pager into a bonkbuster is to pad it

5 out with extraneous detail. usually a long list of

designer labels. In this case. the novel is set in the

world of PR and journalism, so the sex scenes are

interspersed with long, simplistic explanations of

what a press release is and how important

deadlines are. A bit of pornography and drug-smuggling thrown in for good measure does

nothing to alleviate the tedium.

I remember Harold Robbins, along with James

Herbert, being passed round the back ofthe class

at school, so I was braced for something fairly

i repellent. In fact, after a spectacularly horrible

: opening scene where someone gets his nob chewed

! off by hungry fish, The Piranhas settled down into

l an utterly dreary tale of Mafia powermongering.

, Nonetheless, it takes itselfentirely seriously, and

i in 200 pages of wheeling and dealing not even the

g odd murder and shooting party could keep me

l awake. Perhaps after 20 novels, poor old Robbins

is losing his touch.

The same could not be said of Wilbur Smith

, whose touch, on the evidence of his 25th novel

= Elephant Song, is the kind to bring people out in

A weeping sores. Elephant Turd would perhaps be a

; more appropriate title for this steaming, fetid tale

i of violence, perversion, corruption and more

E violence. The setting is Africa, where Smith has

lived for many years, but if you‘re expecting any

insights into its culture and politics, forget it. His world is one of ex-colonies allowed to go to rack and ruin, thanks to Johnny-native‘s congenitally

indolent and corrupt nature the excuse for a pruriently detailed catalogue of assault, murder and dismemberment, complete with lingering,

. loving descriptions of breaking bone and

- putrefying flesh. More than 100 pages of this

nauseating bilge induces a numbing of the brain, a

sort of BSE ofthe intellect. The lager-lout you see

on holiday, with glazed eyes and a shell-shocked

: expression, may not have imbibed one Special

' Brew too many. He has more likely been reading

' that copy of Elephant Song he unwittingly picked up at the airport.

, When She Was Bad. . . She Was Wicked and The

1 Corporate Wife are published by Fontana at£4. 99.

The Piranhas is published by New English Library at£4. 99.

Elephant Song is published by Pan at £5 . 99.

I :- To hell and back

‘For me, novels always begin with a mixture of visual image and abstract idea,‘ says Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The seeds for her i latest book, The Last Magician, were l sown as she leafed through the New , York Times Sunday supplement in l 1987. ‘There was a four-page spread of l Sebastio Salgado’s photographs of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil, incredible photographs of these long, swaying hand-knotted bamboo ladders going down into this pit, half a mile across and 600 feet deep, dug out with trowels and spades, by desperately poor peasants- like a vision oi hell. Academically, I’m a medievalist, and i realised that these pictures reminded me oi Botticelli’s drawings of Dante‘s inferno -there’s one image that could have been a sketch of the photograph, which I found quite mind-boggling, considering the centuries and the

global distance involved. Then a year

and a half later, I was teaching in Sydney, and I walked past the New Town railway station, which is in a little rift valley, surrounded by abandoned railway sheds and cottages, lived in by squatters-there it was again, it was the mine, it was Dante’s inferno, Botticelli’s drawings. I suppose I was

- just dazzled by the persiStence of this

archetype around the world and across time, the descent into the pit.’

All these actual images-the photograph, the drawings, the station can be found in The Last Magician, which unfolds the story of four childhood friends who seek each other out- knowingly or otherwise- in middle age, drawn together bytheir shared memory of a horrific event in

theiryouth, and by their fascinated, almost obsessive love for the enigmatic, elusive woman, Cat. Thematically, it is patterned around notions of surface worlds and underworlds, both literal - as in a swish restaurant providing a front for prostitution and racketeering, orthe violent underbelly of the dispossessed seething below Sydney’s well-appointed facade - and metaphysical, as in the unconscious processes of feeling and memory running beneath awareness. ‘I wanted to explore these kind of oppositions, the symbiosis between the netherside and respectability, the way each insists

: that the other exists,’ Turner Hospital

explains. ‘I talked to a lot of street kids,

teenage prostitutes, and I kept on

: hearing that many of their clients were people they saw in the news—

politicians, cops, judges and lawyers. The paradox absolutely fascinated me, the law makers consorting with the lawbreakers, things being not nearly as opposite as they seem.’

Another structuring device in the novel is memory, as the narrator, Lucy, delves back into her past trying to find the beginning, the true sequence, the

. lost connections the thread of

meaning. ‘It's one of my recurrent themes,’ says Turner Hospital, ‘the mysteriousness of memory, the way we edit and re-edit it into different shapes. Lucy is genuinely trying to unravel the meaning of this story, but she holds constantly under the magnifying-glass of suspicion the very way she’s unravelling it, her own systems of narrative.’ Which are, of course, the novel’s systems— ultimately The Last Magician can be read as an exploration of its own processes of storytelling and, unsettlingly, of our processes of reading, of extracting meaning from words and images. Far from being some clever-clever post-modernist

' exercise, however, it is a compelling,

disturbing and deeply satisfying read, which combines adventurous theoretical probings with complex, fleshed-out characterisation and, with its central mysteries and carefully dropped clues, the excitement of a

; detective-story plot. (Sue Wilson)

The Last Magician is published by Virago at £14.99. Virago also publish

z lsobars, a new original paperback i collection of Janette Turner Hospital’s

short stories, at £5.99.

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