Fiction

12th April 1996 at 01:00
An ability to uncover the extraordinary in ordinary lives animates Julie Myerson's second novel, The Touch (Picador Pounds 12.99).

Frank Chapman, apparently mugged, lies bleeding on the Common where he is found by some Sunday afternoon walkers. One of these, Gayle, a nurse, goes with him to the hospital and is startled to learn in the ambulance that he knows the name of her sister, Donna, who suffers from a twisted spine.

Returning to check on his recovery, Gayle discovers that Frank, a half-crazed evangelical who even preaches the Good News to trees, believes he is part of a plan that will bring Donna to him to be healed. But in order to get to Donna, Frank has to attract not only Gayle but also Will, Donna's boyfriend, both of whom play a protective role.

Sceptical atheists, they seem unlikely material for Frank, but the unexpected relationships that develop are entirely convincing and before long he has an unsettling effect on all their lives.

The narrative is so skilfully parcelled out that the tale becomes by small degrees steadily more ominous. Myerson also has an eye and ear for contemporary mores, especially stilted, abbreviated forms of speech. Her acuity makes the dialogue in Doris Lessing's Love, Again (Flamingo Pounds 15.99) seem by comparison undifferentiated and flabby. But one reads Lessing not so much for the detail as for the broad generosity of her sweep. Moreover her return to realism reinforces her ability to catch the anxieties, concerns and messiness of present-day life.

The central character in Love, Again is Sarah Durham, a woman in her sixties whose difficulties (her husband died young leaving her with two children to bring up alone) seem a thing of the past. Well established as a producer in a small theatrical company, Sarah commissions a play based on a 19th-century woman, Julie Vairon. Though illegitimate and half-caste, Julia became an outstanding artist, musician and diarist before committing suicide on the eve of what would have been respectable marriage. The effect of her story on Stephen Ellington-Smith, whose script Sarah melds with her own, and on those who perform and produce the play, first in Provence and then at a country house in England, is disturbing.

Sarah watches as long-submerged fantasies surface. She is startled by the understanding she shares with Stephen, falls in love with an actor half her age and moves on to a more mature passion for the director who is married and has a child he adores. The characters eddy around each other in an atmosphere filled with longing, pain and desire, all magicked, it seems, by the absent Julie Vairon and her haunting songs.

Slowness (Faber Faber Pounds 12.99) is Milan Kundera's first novel for five years. Translated by Linda Asher, it was written in French and interlards philosophical reflection and present-day action with characters from an 18th-century novel. "Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?" Kundera asks. He recalls the Czech proverb "They are gazing at God's windows", a metaphor used to describe the easy indolence of loafing heroes and roaming vagabonds, and comments "A person gazing at God's windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks."

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