Fiction

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
It is six years since the Booker-Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel. In The Unconsoled (Faber Faber Pounds 15.99) he exchanges the realism of his previous tales for a psychological terrain which, if less chilling than Kafka's, is brilliantly sustained by a perfect control of tone.

Soon after the narrator, Mr Ryder, a celebrated pianist arrives in a central European city in connection with a recital, he steps into the lift and is engaged in conversation by the hotel porter. This begins a trail of incidental mysteries.

Though Ryder, like an amnesiac, has only the haziest notion of his past links with the people he meets, he is waylaid by their problems and needs. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, he acts as a sounding board for other characters encountered on this strange odyssey. As he shuttles between the old town and the new, an anonymous housing estate and the surrounding countryside, time and space expand or contract with dream-like logic. Not having seen the schedule prepared for him, he senses but does not fully understand the expectations that are placed on him.

We learn that some kind of "crisis" has occurred and that civic matters are intimately tied up with musical leadership. Various individuals reveal to Ryder tiny issues which have sprouted huge anxieties, both personal and public. Repeatedly one character is about to touch or speak to another but at the last moment draws back, for here, as elsewhere in Ishiguro's novels, painful situations are linked with communicative failure. Despite the reassurances which the various characters offer one another, the book's overall view of human nature, as its title suggests, is bleak and grieving.

Laurence "Tubby" Passmore undergoes a very different kind of odyssey in David Lodge's Therapy (Secker Warburg Pounds 15) when his wife leaves him and he sets out to find a new sexual partner. Up till then this successful sit-com scriptwriter appears to have had everything except happiness. He learns, however, on various therapies - physiotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and aromatherapy, none of which had corrected his loss - the knack of living without anxiety or depression. At the start of this novel Lodge seems intent on satirising the therapy industry, as Fay Weldon did in Affliction. But Lodge's comedy refuses any restraining focus and pounces exuberantly on many aspects of contemporary life.

There is also a flashback to austerity Britain of the post-war years when the adolescent Passmore became a stalwart member of the church youth club in order to pursue Maureen, a young Catholic. After the hilarious disasters which he encounters with women in Tenerife, Los Angeles and Copenhagen, he tracks down the now late-middle-aged Maureen and looks to her for salvation. Simultaneously he flirts with the existentialism of the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, whose rather gloomy ideas are cleverly and lightly used to point the narrative. There is also a tricksy double-take when certain narrative voices turn out to be monologues invented by Passmore for his therapist.

Both David Lodge and Victoria Glendinning give one the feeling that they can bat the narrative in any number of directions with consummate skill. Like her first novel, The Grown-Ups, Glendinning's Electricity (Hutchinson Pounds 14.99) has a sharp economy. Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of Charlotte Mortimer through the medium of her diary. She marries a man fervently committed to the spread of electricity. When he is given the job of installing an electric plant in a Hertfordshire country house, Charlotte falls in love with its aristocratic owner. In the same way that the bright gaudiness of electric light is disspelling the old, candlelit world, so Glendinning irradiates her romance with harsh, modern wisdom. When Charlotte expresses her determination to tell the truth, the authorial voice warns: "Life, however, makes ascertaining the truth impossible, let alone telling it."

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