All at sea in a postwar world

ATLANTIC by Luke Jennings, Hutchinson £14.99
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WITH the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day approaching, Luke Jennings' second novel is a timely reminder of just how much Britain and its people were transformed by six years of world war. The year is 1947 and the newly refitted liner Carmelia is on her first trans-atlantic voyage from Southampton following wartime service as a troop carrier. On board and also newly returned to civvies is the war-widowed, phlegmatic Reginald Parkes who does something hush-hush in the secret services. His current mission, ostensibly, is to escort his sickly 16-year-old son Cato to New York for a heart operation that will save his life.

Their fellow first-class travellers, all with their own emotional or physical wartime scars, are rather broad character sketches: myster-ious Ayrest MacLean, sultry temptress with eau-de-nil eyes; Pierre Watson, corduroy-wearing BBC boho-type; battle-worn Major Farrell with his gammy bits and a bad case of the DTs; and the decidedly "foreign" Max and Loelia Amber, the former in charge of transporting a 12-foot lentil-eyed python.

At the emotional heart of the story is the voyage of discovery for the young Cato, a rite of passage in which he comes to terms with his illness and with a heartache of a different kind in the shape of any accessible female passengers. For him, life is at once agony and ecstasy as embodied in the beautiful but deadly snake which also sets the overall tone of latent danger. Jennings is at his best in the subtle portrayal of Cato and in particular of the relationship with the father - like the cabin they share, it is both intimate and awkward, a picture of reserve overlaying tragic depths of emotion.

The Carmelia also provides a snapshot of British society in transition: on the top deck Reginald, like the government he works for, is ultimately shown to be far from ship-shape; Cato, scion of the ruling class, has only a 50:50 chance of survival and here, as in the war, any hope at all is in the gift of the new world power, America. The rest of their cocktail- lounge circle, with their intrigues and excesses, are a gruesome, decadent lot, decidedly past their sell-by date. And if their stories sometimes read like a case for Hercule Poirot, it only emphasises what a clich they are and how out of place in the post-war world.

By contrast, the rough and ready Phillippa from the lower deck is "forcefully and physically and outspokenly alive", constantly bursting through to first class and taking on all-comers. She, like her fellow third-class passengers, represent the future, and the future for them is in emigration.

If there is a problem with Atlantic it is that it is all rather schematic. As with his excellent dbut Breach Candy, this book is sometimes overwhelmed by moments of grand guignol which go beyond the needs of plot and metaphor and do no justice to such quality of writing. One scene in particular - Cato wrong-footed by tragic vamp with chewed face - is straight out of a bad B-movie. This reservation apart, an excellent, entertaining read.