BOOK REVIEW / Stealthily crafted seduction from the South: 'In the Tennessee Country' - Peter Taylor: Chatto, 14.99

THE college friend of this book's narrator, Nathan Longfort, is one Robin Maury. One day after class, he compliments the 'all but illiterate' art history lecturer, who 'was allegedly a painter himself': ' 'I like the picture, sir. I think it has quite meretricious detail]' '

' 'Thank you very much, Maury,' said the professor. 'I pride myself on that.' '

Throughout this stealthily crafted novel the reader is encouraged in innumerable small ways to stop and think again. In the Tennessee Country began its life in 'Cousin Aubrey', one of the stories of The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, Taylor's collection published last year. It is not difficult to understand how the story seemed so suggestive and full of life to its author that he had to let it germinate and fruit. The character of Cousin Aubrey haunts this new book; he is an illegitimate cousin of (or rather of 'irregular kinship' to) the senatorial Southern family whose iron loyalties, intrinsic drollness, talk and over- consideration fill the novel.

Aubrey fell in love with Nathan's mother Gertrude when she was only 14. Of course Nathan was not there, but his two aunts, his mother's doting sisters Bertie and Felicia, somehow tell him about it. His dignified mother never gossips or acts indecorously, save when she recites, and then she seems to her son, for whom she wants the life of an artist, to be possessed. Other family members are more consistently possessed; by love, by the bottle (or silver flask), and by death. Nathan himself becomes not an artist but an art historian, though around him art is growing in the dark, at his side in his conjugal bed and in the cot next door.

Cousin Aubrey is hardly ever there but recurs at funerals, always seeming to Nathan to be an emblem of something, even if only of the - he tells us - not uncommon Tennessee eventuality of the disappearance of a man of good character. As is suitable in a story that treats time as though it could be an afternoon or an aeon, since all we can measure it in is our own generations, it is not until the future, in the form of Nathan's son Brax, that we - or Nathan - understand the importance of Cousin Aubrey in bringing hope. He is a self-made man in the human, not the financial, sense.

In an interview over 20 years ago Peter Taylor said: 'It may be that a writer's most important possession, after his talent, is his sense of belonging to a time and place, whatever the disadvantages or injustices or cruelties of that time and place may be.' He is a writer from one of the many Americas whose voices have been screamed down by the megalopolis; a quiet voice, polite, unlike many Southern voices not camp at all, full of nuance, superlatively funny and fresh. His province is time and Tennessee. He makes us want more of both, in his company. Taylor was born in 1917 and has been writing for more than 50 years without being much heard of in Britain. When a writer of this quality, not difficult nor overtly eccentric, receives little attention, although he is writing about life as it actually is as vividly as Lawrence, and about people as they are in relation to one another as attentively as James, it is a sad thing for the thousands of readers who fear that no such writer exists. He does.

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