BOOK: Choosing Spectacles by Rosalind Belben, Serpent's Tail £7.99.

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The Independent Culture
Choosing Spectacles by Rosalind Belben, Serpent's Tail £7.99.

"It is all a question of deceiving and teasing the eye, said the eye doctor, in order to obtain the truth": the title-piece, or eponymous chapter, of this sparkling short novel - or it is seven interlooped stories? - is a tour de force of terse, philosophic narrative. In related chapters, its hero dreams his life, or perhaps retails his life as it penetrates his dreams - life-dreams that verge on nightmare, all of division, exile, fragmentation, abandonment. One moving, intricate, hard-eyed part is woven from snippets of the letters, thoughts, sensations of a couple separated by a totalitarian regime which he has escaped, leaving her behind. He, split, is everywhere as the world splits (in France when the Gulf War breaks out, in Germany as the Wall comes down), always an outsider, perpetually bemused and longing.

It is a small book that packs a strong punch, if your tastes run to powerful emotional writing that takes no romantic prisoners. Belben's lacquered, ice-pick prose has a Continental whiff to it, almost as if it actually were translated; her collision of high thought and earthy detail sounds un-English, her language dedicated to "making strange" in order to feel and record more freshly. She should be much more celebrated.

Julia Sutherland