BOOK REVIEW / Barbie is out for oblivion: 'An Immaculate Figure' - Elleke Boehmer: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ELLEKE BOEHMER, a South African whose Screens Against the Sky was shortlisted for the David Higham First Novel Award, restates her interest in heroines with a fragile sense of their own worth. Rosandra, the eponymous Immaculate Figure, is beautiful and vacuous. Having no passions of her own beyond the (for her easily attainable) desire to become a model, she is attracted to men whose visions lend themselves to vivid narrative.

This puts her in the hands of some of Africa's odder megalomaniacs, thinly fictionalised. First there is Baas, who plans to take over an offshore tropical island with his gang of rugby-playing mercenaries; and then Thony, who builds international pleasure palaces on the dry veldt; there is also Ahmed, who is a freedom-fighter. Guns are the clandestine thrill that provides a link between the three.

The novel points lightly at several themes: the impossibility of communion between men dreaming of guns and women dreaming of waxing- creams; the destructive power of beauty, which objectifies its possessor in her own eyes as well as the beholder's; the culpability of the white South African (Rosandra's whiteness is much stressed) who does not choose but merely reacts. Yet where the central voice - Rosandra relating her story to her childhood admirer Jem - has all the emotional impact of a Barbie doll, it is hard to feel that any of these themes matter.

Nevertheless, there is an intriguing sub-text on offer. Rosandra's true aim is to be disconnected from everything. She achieves this by 'staring at the sky, focusing on one point, letting her mind drift'. She uses the image of a thin blue cloud: 'Thinking of it she didn't worry about a thing, not once.' To be reminded of other doorways to transcendence - Eliot's moment in the rose garden at Burnt Norton or Keats's Grecian urn - or to see Rosandra as an exponent of Wordsworth's 'wise passiveness' and Keats's 'negative capability' is perhaps to dignify her with qualities which accord ill with her complete lack of intellectual curiosity. The thin blue cloud offers her oblivion, not certitude, and maybe oblivion is all a Barbie doll can expect. But on the periphery of Rosandra's story lurks a message about the overriding value of detachment from the things of this world.

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