The Black Album, Hanif Kureishi, Faber amp; Faber, #163;14.99 Small g: a Summer Idyll, Patricia Highsmith, Bloomsbury, #163;15.99 Egg Dancing, Liz Jensen, Bloomsbury, #163;13.99 Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album, takes its title from a Prince CD. The whole novel is steeped in style commodities and music culture, although neither vacuously nor uncritically.It is 1989, the year of the anti-Rushdie fatwah, and for Shahid, new to London and student life, both music and literature come out fighting. Kureishi gives wardrobes more than a walk-on part; characters are conveyed through what they wear rather than height or hair colour - one gets his comeuppance by being stripped of a Paul Smith shirt.
Shahid is trying on identities too. Son of wealthy suburban Pakistanis, he is a novice writer who can't quite trust the power of creative imagination, even though it becomes his strongest weapon in argument against the crassness of his family's business ethos or the simplistic but seductive rigidities of Islamic fundamentalism. Sex and drugs also feature in Shahid's unsentimental education. Deedee, his lecturer-lover, turns out to be less powerful and more needy than her cultural-studies cool suggests at first. Fortunately, women escape Kureishi's tendency to caricature. Feminism is still OK, racism hasn't gone away, hedonism has much to recommend it, but most other - isms are ruled out as - wasms. 1989 spawned a lot of fallacies.
This is a likeable, if meandering, novel. Searching for the self involves a lot of cross-London travel on public transport, and sometimes feels like it. But the city does acquire a texture; however dirty and Thatcher-blighted, it still has the carnival buzz of a metropolis.
Patricia Highsmith detested fundamentalism, and any other kind of moral straitjacketing; the family for starters. She wrote one novel about the fatal despotism of a born-again Christian father towards his son. Highsmith fans who wouldn't give most crime fiction the time of day read her because she goes deeper and darker, in psychological, often oedipal, studies overburdened with domestic detail; ballast for unstable lives. Her final book, Small g: a Summer Idyll isuncharacteristically sunny. It has been compared to Carol, the novel she published pseudonymously about a lesbian love affair. This was during America's leaden McCarthyist years, and later books shrewdly mapped that country's political psyche from inside the everyday balance of her characters' obsessions. This narrative stealth might be offset by overt political sympathies: one book was dedicated to the PLO.
What to make of Small g, where the heroes are nice, the villains nasty, no subtlety of shading? The former are allied by their love or friendship for Peter, a young gay man who is murdered on page one. The setting is a Zurich cafe whose clientele mixes gay, straight and in-between, along with tourists who find it listed in guide books where small g denotes such an ambience. Resident homophobe Renate tyrannizes her young apprentice, Luisa but Luisa's bid for freedom is aided by Peter's lover, Rickie, and the newcomer Teddy. Also in attendance is Rickie's dog, Lulu, a mascot given almost human status, while the witch-like Renate has her familiar too, the simple, human but brutish Willi. By endorsing her young characters' naiveties and contriving happy endings (there is even a sweet gay cop) Highsmith seems to have been granting herself some final fairy-tale wishes for life to be fairer and more free of care.
At first Egg Dancing promises merely to be a Fay Weldonish trip along the well downtrodden ground of female domestic victimhood. But Liz Jensen's feminist revenge fantasy sparkles with comic surprises. Hazel, the worm about to turn, has an infant son and gynaecologist husband hellbent on developing a perfect-baby gene, a clever sister who gets evangelical religion, and a mad mother, Moira, long-term mental patient and secret matriarchal schemer. It is the wise and well-read Moira who turns out to be the book's true heroine, foiling male-supremacist plans and helping her daughters come to their senses. Childbirth, children and parenthood are handled without a lot of sentimentality in this skilful and satisfyingly funny first novel.