BOOK REVIEW / A case of middle-age spread: When the world was steady - Claire Messud: Granta, pounds 14.99

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THE USUAL problem with split narratives is the reader's unwillingness to be dragged from one story to begin a laborious assault on another. It takes an effort to adapt to new characters, a different environment. This tale of two sisters alternates the experiences of estranged fiftysomethings, Emmy and Ginny: the former flees to Bali after a humiliating divorce and tags on to a bizarre, faintly sinister household in the jungle interior; the latter's travails involve London, Scotland and the care of an aged parent. But such is Claire Messud's skill that Ginny's prosaic encounters exert just as much of a thrill as Emmy's more exciting ones.

The title translates a Balinese phrase referring to the island's time of peace, before the white man. The sisters, who only meet physically in the last pages, both hark back occasionally to their childhood, when their relationship was warm and uncomplicated. Now they are hostile and mutually suspicious, having taken wildly different paths: marriage, motherhood and travel set against celibacy and stagnation. Each sees the other's existence as a sour reproach; and the way Messud (only 28) delineates their creaky lack of emotional flexibility is convincing and moving. They're a dreadful pair, but enjoyable company.

Emmy retains the frank egotism of the adolescent and envies the Balinese their contentment and sense of community. Ginny, stuck in a frustrating office job and caring for their malevolent, independent-minded mother (though absent Emmy remains the favourite daughter), seeks solace in God and spiritual friendship with the members of her gospel study group. Neither sister is particularly admirable; both, in their different ways, are complacent, patronising and superior. Emmy's self-centredness is counterbalanced by a tolerance born of moral laziness rather than active benignity. Ginny's feverish attempts to do good are curdled by her hatred of gays, bursts of resentment towards the mother-burden and spinsterly suspicion of other races. At the end of their comical and sometimes alarming separate adventures, both have discovered tools to help them grow and develop - if it's not too late.

Emmy the Sydney housewife learns about an outlook and generosity far wider than her own when she meets the egregious neo-hippy, Buddy; he might be a selfish lecher, but he welcomes Emmy into his luxurious home, expecting and getting precious little in return. Ginny is shaken out of her Christian certainties and learns how to take pleasure in simple achievements: sitting alone in a pub, for example, or talking to a man. That their final encounter is inconclusive says much about human recidivism: life is a schoolmistress, this novel seems to be saying, who drums the same lesson into us again and again. Messud's two old dogs may be past learning new tricks, but in its rich detail and its humour, this is a wry, uplifting book - and goes some way to counteracting the macho tenor of Granta's publishing identity.

(Photograph omitted)