Fiction for adults

16th June 2000 at 01:00
The Twins by Tessa de Loo (Arcadia pound;11.99) comes garlanded with praise from its native country, the Netherlands, where it has sold more than a million copies.

It is an ambitious novel, taking as its subject the whole of the wartime history of Europe. In the framing story, two old ladies taking the waters at a spa meet and by accident discover that they are twins. They were separated in early childhood. One went to live in Holland and the other in Germany. Throughout the book, they fill in both for themselves and the reader what has happened since they were torn apart.

This device allows the writer to give a panoramic picture of what things were like for civilians in the war. Dramatic events are juxtaposed with domestic detail. The great hunger in Holland, the hiding of Jews, the plot to assassinate Hitler... all these touch our heroines' lives, and we constantly travel backwards and forwards in time as the old ladies re-establish the sisterhood they once knew.

It's an interesting story, but there is a stodginess about the language. It's hard to tell if this comes from the original or the translation (by Ruth Levitt) but it leads to clunking prose on occasion and to unreal dialogue: "Will you leave off my rage as something to be regarded as constructive, which will transform itself into forgiveness if I air it sufficiently?" The Buffalo Thief by Yojana Sharma (Doubleday pound;16.99) is an enjoyable story of small-town Indian life, about a treasure, marriage, a possibly magical buffalo, someone who wants to write a bestseller, and fascinating questions about who "owns" stories.

he hiding-place of the treasure is a delightful surprise, and along the way we hear the voices of many characters: men, women, children; the foolish, the wise; the ambitious and the vain. The author blends them together with great brio. It's also well constructed for a first novel and bowls along at a fair old rate, but it could have done with judicious cutting.

A History of Insects (Review pound;9.99) by Yvonne Roberts is unputdownable. This is a wonderful novel set in the British High Commission in Peshawar, Pakistan. Nine-year-old Ella watches the adults around her: British, American and Pakistani. There's a long tradition in fiction of the child observer, which allows the writer to be at the same time naive and omniscient. There's pleasure in the reader's knowing things which the character does not.

We see what's wrong with the various marriages Roberts puts under the microscope. Ella misunderstands much, but has the privilege of being allowed into all levels of a highly stratified society. A mesmerising tale of death and love and passion unfolds, and Ella records it in her notebook. She labels this "A History of Insects" to ensure that her mother will not want to open it, but the title also refers to the humans, scurrying about their anthill, under Ella's gaze.

Roberts has a good eye for detail of every kind. She was a colonial child during the Fifties, as I was, so many of her memories chime with mine. But you don't have to share the background to enjoy the story. Incidentally, the book features one of the most horrible boarding-schools in fiction.


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