Book review: A champ mislaid in the mail

Shadow Box by Antonia Logue Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99, 318pp
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The Independent Culture
ANTONIA LOGUE sold the outline and first few pages of this debut novel two years ago for a large sum of money. She was 23, and she had an unusual and brilliant idea for a story. She also had those few pages of extremely strong writing in the voice of Jack Johnson, the contentious and charismatic black American from Texas who won the world heavyweight boxing title in 1908. The challenge, after cheque and contract, was to make a book.

In the course of writing she brought in two more characters - again, historical figures. One is Arthur Cravan, the nephew by marriage of Oscar Wilde, who published a magazine called Maintenant in pre-First World War Paris; the other his wife, Mina Loy, an English beauty he met in New York, who had published a volume of poems and had an affair with Marinetti. Shadow Box explores the relationship between these three flamboyant characters as well as the connections between boxing and poetry, boxing and love affairs, boxing and friendship. It is a ravishing subject for any novel.

In the opening pages, a voice bounds onto the page - a big, black voice, muscular and sharp, lashing about with quick, deft flicks, dancing and posturing impressively. "You'd dip into Cravan for a day and come out of an acid bath, your body corroding, sinuses so full of poison those inner canals in your ears would hear nothing but a high wasting moan and your balance would be all shot to hell." Jack Johnson is writing to Mina Loy in 1946. He has not seen or contacted her since 1913, when he witnessed her marriage to Cravan in Mexico.

Months after the wedding, Cravan disappeared for ever. He faked his own death, as Johnson had recently faked his own defeat in a championship fight. Johnson and Cravan are two of a kind: hellish big men, extravagant and brash; the kind that gets sentimental and nostalgic in older years.

The novel is hung around the mystery of Cravan's disappearance. His love affair with Mina, whom he met while she was hanging around with Marcel Duchamp in New York, is presented as the biggest, truest love two people ever had. Antonia Logue tries hard to convince us both that the affair was as deep as we are told, and that Cravan's ditching of it was justifiable in his own terms. This just doesn't add up. It was a mindless acte gratuit that ruined his wife's life.

Johnson courageously threw the world title fight in order to placate the FBI and be allowed back into America, which he had left to escape racist abuse and trumped-up legal cases. Cravan's disappearance serves no purpose. It just makes him look vainer, more selfish and petty than we had already begun to suspect.

Thirty years on, Mina and Jack are corresponding, both still in love with Arthur Cravan and their own glory days. The epistolary novel is a delicate form. A letter should be vibrant, full of today and tomorrow, of ifs and buts and assertions and contradictions. It reveals your vanities and weaknesses between the lines. And it should be written to someone. If it is just used as a device for conveying information, then it is wasted.

Epistolary novels suit trivial subjects, where all the dramatic ploys inherent in letter writing can work their magic and create a dynamic tension between two people. But here each letter is just a pretext for a chronicle. Each correspondent writes not for the person addressed but for the reader. The effect is like watching someone acting up for the CCTV in a supermarket. The Shadow Box of the title starts to suggest the noun - a device for projecting theatrical shadows - more than the verb that the author also intended.

I loved the descriptions of fights, of Jack Johnson's carryings-on with white women. Whenever the writer gets down on a level with the past and gives it to you straight, the text bursts magnificently into life. There was everything to fight for here: the war, love affairs, an artistic movement, a whole world to be punched into shape. Hats off to Antonia Logue for having the nous and courage to take it on. She handles a huge range of material with a skill which is astonishing in a first novel, and she is an unusually strong writer with a fine ear for rhythm. All the more reason to regret that she was allowed, to some degree, to throw it away by adopting a monotonous restrospective idiom, instead of getting into the ring and slugging it out for real.