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BOOK REVIEW / A real life turned into a fury tale: 'The Furies' - Janet Hobhouse: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

IN THE first chapter of this autobiographical novel, Helen, the narrator, describes a recurrent dream which troubled her eight-year-old self. She is being chased by a 'great, white, grinding, groaning machine': 'it comes after me, swallowing, crunching the air in front of it, pursuing me doggedly, evenly'. On the last page, Helen, now in her thirties, is still fleeing the juggernaut. She knows it is only a matter of time before it catches her up.

A publisher's note at the front of The Furies informs the reader that Janet Hobhouse died before she could put the finishing touches to this, her fourth novel. Apart from a couple of breaks in the narrative, marked by three dot ellipses, and the odd ghastly sentence, it is a polished performance, and the poise of the prose serves to heighten the rawness and waywardness of the emotions explored. If the note immediately creates the sense of an ending, the final chapter, by being so disconcertingly brief, still manages to surprise and move us.

Gogi, Helen's grandmother, often read to her from a Dulac edition of fairy tales. As she tells her own story, Helen frequently refers to fables - Bett, her mother, forever waiting to be rescued by a Prince Charming, is likened to Sleeping Beauty - but, as the title suggests, the novel is not a fairy tale but a fury tale. The 'sickening lurches of loss and renewal' gradually turn into a spiral of anger, depression and despair.

But not all the action is doomy. After the somewhat stilted prologue - a Whartonish mini- saga which traces the fall of Helen's Jewish family from plutocracy in Frankfurt to poverty in Fifties' New York - the pace picks up as our heroine works her way through a succession of schools in both America and England. It is at Oxford, however, that Helen really begins to enjoy herself - first with the devoted Hugh, a half-German blond, and then with Edward, 'the brilliant Etonian, an Eng Lit Scholar destined to get a brilliant First'. Even so 'the lover's ecosystem, red in tooth and claw', does not prevent her resorting to lithium to stave off the blues.

Saddled with a too-demonstrative American mother and a cold-blooded English squire as a father - and frequently crossing the Atlantic to be with one or the other - Helen does not know if she is coming or going. When, after a roller-coaster courtship, she finally marries Ned, who has suddenly inherited his stockbroker father's wealth, she still cannot decide whether 'to be or not to be two'. She has a pathological fear of commitment and indulges in a fling with the Greatest Living Jewish Novelist who lives downstairs. Up to this point, in spite of what the self-obsessed Helen has had to endure, the reader cannot help thinking that she deserves at least some of what she gets. But then the Furies really sink their teeth into her.

Bett kills herself, the accountant runs off with Ned's money, the marriage breaks up, Helen's mews flat burns down, her car is stolen and, on returning to New York, she discovers that the possessions she put in storage have been filched. No wonder she gets depressed. A romance with a national heart-throb not unlike Jeremy Irons is little consolation. Retreating to a wintry Cape Cod, she immerses herself in her burgeoning literary career. Back in the Big Apple to deliver her manuscript to her agent, she learns that the lump in her abdomen is the big C.

Hobhouse certainly makes you feel for her heroine, but she is at her best depicting places rather than people, good times rather than bad: the bohemian oasis of her grandmother's studio loft, a couple of blocks from Carnegie Hall; Oxford in the Sixties. As an epitaph, this cross between a Bildungsroman and a cri de coeur is almost unbearably eloquent. It emphasises the need to learn fast 'how to pass near other people's lives without getting scorched'.