BOOK REVIEW / Bad, not mad: dangerous to know: ' Poet and Dancer' - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: John Murray, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS latest novel from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has just won an Oscar for her screenplay of Howards End, has such a filmic quality that it leaves one with the sense of having watched an engrossing movie rather than having read a novel, and for full hypnotic effect it should be read at one sitting, if possible. The story of the folie a deux cousins Angel(ica) and Lara is set in Manhattan, vividly described and yet made dream-like by their introversion, in the recent past where the dark, chandelier-lit interiors of the houses of wealthy German immigrants provide heavy contrast to the aerial skyscraper skyscape. Angel and Lara's tale is told in a 'mixture of fact and imagination' by a narrator who, knowing her place as a fictional device, provides a short, self-effacing preface explaining how Angel's mother begged her to write about her daughter, now dead. Angel was a poet, the narrator is a writer, and what follows is her account of a relationship which outsiders could not understand; the third-party speculation has a rather distancing effect, which celluloid or acting might lessen, and the reader must accept Angel's obsessive love for Lara without quite knowing why it should be.

How good a poet Angel was, or might have been, we do not know, for she abandoned her writing and destroyed her later work. She was hailed as a genius by her doting German maternal grandparents for her childish efforts, and now all that remains of her is a few pages of an exercise book, treasured by her bereaved and demented mother. Lara was never much of a dancer. Her hectic, clumsy dances - 'Now I am a flower]' 'Now a princess]' 'See the deer]' - acceptable in a seven-year-old, never progress and become embarrassing and pitiable in an adult. The cousins meet when Angel, dark and plain but adored, is eight, and Lara, fair and pretty, is seven. They spend the night at their grandparents' house, and Lara, whose father is a psychiatrist of sorts, initiates Angel into a little infant sexuality. Angel falls hopelessly, and fatally, in love.

They meet again as young women, and it becomes clear that the fevered child Lara has grown into an unstable and amoral person who her own father is unable to help. He, quite possibly a charlatan - and the author is a past master at depicting quack gurus - surrounds himself with a harem of buxom blonde disciples known as 'the Valkyries', doles out pills to Lara and is relieved to hand her over to Angel's care. Lara alienates Angel from her mother, family and friends, including Rohit, the son of her mother's Indian partner in their textile importing business. Rohit and Angel's friendship might have blossomed into love, but this is a story of wasted talent and love where one person's illness or wickedness blights many people's lives. It ends in tragedy with the suicide of Lara and Angel, leaving unanswered the question of whether Lara was sick or evil. She destroyed Angel, was totally selfish, manipulative and unscrupulous, but was it her fault? Roland, a kind young waiter who befriended her and got her out of scrapes, protected her from dangerous pick-ups, got her off shoplifting charges, was in no doubt, in later life, that 'she wasn't mad. Just bad. People are, believe it or not . . . You can call it by all the fancy names you please, but that's what it is. There are good people trying to do all right, and there are bad ones that pull them down and win.' Lara may have been a wrong 'un, but her badness brought her no happiness, and throughout the book the good oppose the evil, and get no happiness either. The narrator concludes that Roland was speaking as much of his experiences of working in the city as of Lara, but, whether he was right or wrong, this is a sad and memorable novel, richly detailed and thought-provoking.

(Photograph omitted)

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