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BOOK REVIEW / A better sort of tragedy: Juggling by Barbara Trapido - Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99

IN THE long run, we value writers and artists not for what they do but for how well they do it, yet over the short haul the balance tilts the other way: in the myopic blur of actuality, aspiration and attitude loom larger than achievement. This goes far towards explaining the adulation lavished on various trendy names whose matter and manner are continually writing cheques which their talent can't cash. It may also account in part for the relative obscurity of a writer as clever, witty and wise as Barbara Trapido.

Not that her material is in any sense lightweight. Juggling, like her three previous novels, treats serious topics - love, rejection, cruelty, power, violence, rape, death - with the seriousness they deserve, but without the portentousness to which we have become accustomed, even addicted. And although Trapido's vision of life is essentially comic, this is not a 'comic novel' any more than The Magic Flute is a comic opera, or A Comedy of Errors a comedy of errors.

Such comparisons are not gratuitous. Mozart's singspiel provided both a structural model and a complex series of references for Trapido's last novel, Temples of Delight; in this self-contained sequel, Shakespeare's comedies fulfil a similar function. The title puns on the Elizabethan sense of 'juggle': to play tricks so as to cheat or deceive somebody. Everyone in the novel does this to some extent, wittingly or not, as they try to juggle the details of their lives, keeping all the balls in the air, holding the pattern together.

The most daring and skilful juggler of all is Barbara Trapido herself, who puts her characters through dizzying permutations of gender, identity, background and relationships, both personal and genetic. The pace increases imperceptibly, creeping up on the reader, until what started as a fairly sober and straightforward study of generational conflicts ends in a pyrotechnic climax which exploits every Shakespearian device - identical twins, lost siblings, transposed parents, unlikely couples, outrageous coincidences and brazenly expedient plotting - to an extent which might have made even the Bard blush.

But there is more to Juggling than high-profile artifice, brilliantly achieved though it is. Barbara Trapido has a keen sense of the way power operates in every relationship, particularly those between the sexes, and an especially sensitive understanding of how this affects children. At the same time, she has no use for politically correct rules-of-thumb, or indeed any approach which produces a solution by simplistically redefining the problem. The novel ends happily because its mode is comedy, but we are left in no doubt about the complexity of the issues at stake, or the precariousness of the balance which has been achieved.

The result is a work of enormous charm, highly entertaining and told with a deft touch, which handles serious matters lightly and treats light ones with proper respect. As the heroine writes in an undergraduate essay on Shakespeare: 'The Tragedies are Tragedies and the Comedies are Tragedies. The Comedies are a better sort of tragedy because they make us laugh and because the characters stay alive. Survival is admirable.'

(Photograph omitted)