Fiction

Carol Shields writes about the characters in her novels: "I write about people I have an urge to redeem, to hold still in the flow of history."

In The Stone Diaries she chronicled the almost century-long existence of Daisy Goodwill, an ordinary life made extraordinary by this author's percipience and compassion. Now she focuses on the opposite sex. Larry's Party (Fourth Estate, Pounds 16.99) tells the story of Larry Weller between 1977 and 1997, with sorties into his earlier life. He is both uniquely himself and representative of a particular era, its fads, social patterns and anxieties. Again, in chronicling one person's life, Shields tells us about ourselves.

One curious detail in Larry's Party is that his mother, unintentionally but fatally, poisoned her mother-in-law by insufficiently heating some bottled, botulism-tainted, runner beans. The mother's guilt could have become a determining factor in Larry's make-up. But Shields resists fixed interpretations and, instead of grief-hardened statuettes, Larry's folks breathe and practise "rituals of their own tentative invention".

Larry's honeymoon is determined by his father who gives the young couple a package tour of England. On the last day they visit Hampton Court. Larry,a young, previously untravelled floral designer from the middle of Canada, has never before seen or heard of a hedge maze. Inside its dense, high walls he finds himself unplugged from the world and wondering exactly how lost a person can get. From then on the maze becomes a variously interpreted symbol for the labyrinth that all modern wanderers and pilgrims must travel.

A similar imaginative buoyancy travels through Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (Faber, Pounds 15.99). The eponymous, blighted hero is another version of Magwitch, the Botany Bay convict in Dickens's Great Expectations who returns to England to meet the protege he has funded with wealth gained in Australia. But Carey upends Dickens's structure and gives the chief focus, not to Pip's equivalent, but to Maggs.

To avoid the gallows, Maggs disguises himself as a footman and enters the employment of a wealthy grocer, Percy Buckle. In his house Maggs meets Tobias Oates, a novelist and amateur hypnotist who claims he can free the tortured Maggs from his inner phantom. "It's the Criminal Mind," Oates declares, "awaiting its first cartographer." This gleeful, dark tale moves at a cracking pace and displays Carey's knack for making oddball characters sympathetic and vivid. Jack Maggs also confirms Carey's role as a brilliant, if sometimes brittle, wordsmith.

u Any attempt to confer establishment approval on contemporary art or literature is bound to invite debate. But this year the Booker attracted more than usual hostility. Critics and booksellers attacked the lack of big names on the shortlist - and the absence of both Shields and Carey was noted.

Only one of the named books had been selling well before the shortlist was announced. This was Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which makes vivid the history of south India by presenting it through the eyes of seven-year-old twins. When it won the prize, there were cheers. Once again the Booker has endorsed a book that changes lives, and is a moving, engrossing read.

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