Frances Spalding

Have you noticed," she said, "how everyone, these days, wants to get well? It's like we're all sick, a whole lot of us - or we think that we are. People used to talk in financial metaphors, and now they use the language of illness, treatment and recovery, all the time . . . It's weird really. How did we all become so ill?"

One interest offered by contemporary fiction is the way it shows us how we live now. Michael Bracewell's Saint Rachel (Jonathan Cape, pound;9.99) draws not only on the metaphor of illness but also on the widespread use of anti-depressants, in particular Prozac, said to be taken by four million Americans and another million English.

In this book the character John White resorts to this and other drugs as a release from the pain of a failed marriage. Freed by an inheritance from the need to work, he has for the previous seven years made his wife his sole occupation.

Still only 30, he is in effect retired from life, taking refuge in the fading splendour of a gentleman's club in Mayfair. Inherently lazy and now engulfed by an aimless melancholy following his wife's departure, he is a personality on the edge of collapse.

Bracewell's prose is lean and transparent, it's pace beautifully judged. He is especially adept at geography, both external and internal, and uses aspects of London, such as "the silence of wealth" in Mayfair at night, to help evoke a state of mind. He also counterpoints John White's morbid nervousness with his cousin Sarah's poise. She and her boyfriend Robert are portrayed as "solid, hard-working, liberal and prosperous" and therefore live in the Barbican.

But even their well-being is momentarily rocked: this novel details the many things undermining the fabric of middle-class urban life today - illness, isolation, problems of gender, uncertainty and a lack of depth. "Get shallow - that's the summit of wisdom," advises Rachel, the character who arouses in John a passion that looks set to cure his unhappiness. But in n keeping with its rejection of sentimentality, this novel, though suffused with compassion, ends chillingly.

After Zenda, John Spurling's new novel, also focuses on a 30-year-old. Karl Rassendyll, however, far from having inherited wealth, is a casualty of the fall-out that followed Thatcherism in the City in the 198Os.

Now unemployed and living in Hackney, he is light of heart and pocket, expecting little. A telephone call brings him an assignation with a stranger in Regent's Park. There he learns that he is heir to Ruritania, the great-grandson of its last monarch, Flavia Elphberg and of Rudolf Rassendyll, the gentleman hero whose exploits Anthony Hope recounted in The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau.

In order to visit his country incognito Karl cuts off his Rassendyll red hair and travels out as a skinhead journalist under the assumed name of Ed Fenton. He finds the country recently liberated from Communism and beset by marauding Slav nationalists.Having been subject for decades to various dismal forms of so-called "popular" governments, the notion of a monarch, far from seeming repressive, offers new hope. However, not until the end of this book, and after many dangerous adventures, does Karl become King.

After Zenda (Andre Deutsch, pound;14.99) is a knock-about thriller, accurately described in the blurb as less a sequel to Hope's popular classic than a modern-mirror image. Far from sharing his great-grandfather's noble daring, Karl Rassendyll takes advantage of whatever comes his way, women especially.

He likes danger, and joins the Ruritanian Army, but abandons it to side with the Slavs. He escapes execution as a mercenary and steps in and out of other people's quarrels and causes with apparent insouciance.

Also a thriller of a kind is John Banville's Athena (Secker amp; Warburg, pound;15.99). There are certainly stolen paintings, gangsters, sleazy settings, a canny detective and Morrow, the main protagonist and narrator, who has done time inside, teaching himself art history while locked up. Asked by a spiv called Morden to evaluate a cache of mythological pictures, he writes extensive catalogue entries which appear interspersed with the main narrative and reflect in part on an affair he is having with a woman called A. The real dream is Banville's style and his ability to capture the most evanescent details and states of mind. Joyce is a name often used in relation to Banville's writing but with this book, the third in a trilogy that began with A Book of Evidence, his hunger for the mundane and his troubled ontology reminded me more of Sartre's Nausea. There are moments when his prose, like Morrow watching A, indulges in "an enraptured cannibalism of the senses".

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Frances Spalding

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