Book talk

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Sheila McIlwraith on Occam's Razor by Maureen Duffy

I picked up the novel partly because I've always intended to read Maureen Duffy and partly to find out what Occam's Razor was. I had vaguely classed it with the Sword of Damocles, but of course it's nothing to do with an actual implement. It's a principle attributed to the medieval William of Occam: strip away the non-essentials and the answer to your problem will be revealed.

Occam's Razor weaves together the worlds of two elderly widowed immigrants in west London. Orazio Carbone is approached by Mafia gangsters demanding he launder money through his restaurant. Pearse Noonan's son Liam is on the run from the IRA and the police are looking for him. Though Orazio has handed over control of his business to his daughter Agnese and her English accountant son, the hoods don't care: Orazio must pay up or the family is at risk. Though Liam broke his mother's heart by disappearing off to university in Belfast, Pearse has to find him before anyone else does, but, he says, "I'm afraid I might lead them straight to him".

They agree to help each other and the exciting plot is laid. But the plot is not the best thing about the novel. The book is artfully constructed, though almost too symmetrcal, but the joy of reading it was in its bagginess. Agnese and Liam tell their own stories in their own, distinctive voices and Duffy slips inside their skins as effortlessly as she does into Orazio's, remembering being deported in the war, or Pearse's, as he recalls being unwittingly shipped off to fight in France.

Duffy's themes are expansive: the friendship between men; sexual love, whether married, homosexual or first; trust and betrayal; language itself. Her descriptions are exact, sensual, whether of a council estate ("A narrow corridor stinking of piss and decay, one side recessed for a trio of huge round vats for unspecified waste") or the food in an Italian deli ("dangling, crusty-rinded salamis, olives black and moist as doe's eyes"). There are things to learn, things to congratulate oneself on knowing.

I found the ending a bit of a cop-out. But, on reflection, it was inevitable, the energy of love propelling the book to its finale. A proper novel, it delivers a realised world which, while recognisable, extends the reader's experience.

Sheila McIlwraith is lecturer at Ayr College. "Occam's Razor" is published by Sinclair Stevenson.In libraries (out of print) * Send us your Book talk.

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