Fiction

14th February 1997 at 00:00
In The Nature of Blood (Faber and Faber, Pounds 15.99) Caryl Phillips interweaves three compelling stories. In Cyprus in 1946 a young Jewish doctor from Palestine works among the thousands of refugees interned there on their way to their promised land. He is obsessed by thoughts of the family he has left behind him, and of his brother's family, lost somewhere in the chaos that is post-war Europe.

Cut to Belsen, spring 1945. Ella, that family's last survivor, watches the bulldozers piling wire and corpses round her. Memories of her parents and her childhood in the ghetto briefly pierce the dreadful reality of what she has seen and become in the intervening years.

Cut to Venice, 1480, and another ghetto. In a sudden ferment of anti-semitism a family is tortured and executed for crimes that never happened. With Venetian thoroughness, the state records the details. Cut to a palace on the Grand Canal. An African general in the Doge's service is paying court to Desdemona. Cut back to Belsen. Cut back to Cyprus.

In fragments of documentary evidence and memory three tragedies unfold, held together by the common burden of black African and Jew, and the shedding of their blood. A powerful and painful novel, sparsely told.

There is blood also in The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargazt (Virago, Pounds 9.99), lots of it, but there's much less guilt. Beth lives on a remote farm in western Canada, next to the Indian reservation. This is her story of what happened, sometime during the Second World War, in the year she turned 15 - and the world "fell apart then came together again".

It is, she says, a strange and haunting story - but the evidence is all there, in the scrapbook of recipes, charms and cuttings that her mother kept till the day she died. The valley is enclosed and brooding, and feuds and incest flourish. There is danger, too. A bear or something worse has killed and disembowelled her school friend Sarah; there is cruelty, real menace and more than a hint of possession in the air.

But there is freshness, too, in Beth's growing self-awareness - and always, beautifully captured, in the detail of the life-giving chores and routines of frontier life. The strange recipe of the title turns out to be prophetic - and in a less earthy story the happy ending might have felt sentimental. Nevertheless, this is a very fine first novel, rich in character and flavour. And, appropriately, all the recipes are included.

On the face of it, Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries (Granta, Pounds 15.99) is a variation on the eternal triangle theme. First generation American physicist Giovanni (Jove) is married to Stella, daughter of a mystical Viennese refugee bookseller. Alluvia (Alice), daughter of Mersey tugboat skipper now boss of shipping line, is mistress to them both. Strange symmetries hold the three in place.

But nothing is quite what it seems in this fizzing, heady brew. Alchemy, tarot cards and cabbalistic theology mix with coincidence and quantum physics to create a world of virtual unreality. The conclusion is both symbolic and heavily contrived. The writing is often sharply, blackly funny, but it's self-indulgent and distracting too.

Jonathan Buckley's first novel, though, is an extraordinary achievement. A young writer wants to tackle a biography of the concert pianist prodigy who was his hero, and approaches the musician's brother for his help. But what sort of man was this elusive genius? The exchange of letters that follows makes up the Biography of Thomas Lang (Fourth Estate, Pounds 9.99).

A half picture gradually emerges, convincingly handled both in content and in tone - authentically acerbic, dismissively professional, musically authoritative - but we never reach an answer to the question. The more evidence we accumulate, the more empty, like a Pompeiian cast, becomes the space that it defines. Is this true, we wonder, of all biography? An intelligent, enjoyable and skilfully crafted read.

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