BOOK REVIEW / Dangerously circling round secret places: 'Lipstick on the Host' - Aidan Mathews: Secker, 13.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'IT'S a lie,' I said. 'The cartoon of Animal Farm is a lie. It's a lie because it lies about the ending. If you lie about the end, then you lie about the middle, too, and you end up lying about the beginning, as well, and then you're back where you start, aren't you?'

The speaker is the unmarried 41-year-old Dublin schoolteacher who narrates this collection's title novella, and her story proves the opposite - that to be true to the spirit, you have to distort or even manufacture the facts. It is an account of her short affair with the perfect man, and it doesn't matter how much of the romance is made up of what she calls 'downrighters'. The sense of loss, the longing for completion, the fear of God and the terror of the physical are all the stronger for their not being anchored.

The same themes find an angrier home in the equally brilliant 'Train Tracks'. It is told by a 12-year-old whose exchange programme visit to Germany goes wrong not just because he blames his hosts for the Holocaust but because he resorts to tragically comic measures to get rid of a turd that will not budge from the oddly constructed viewing platform in their toilet bowl.

All of Aidan Mathews' stories take their frail and passionately wrong-headed narrators over the edge into the obscene and the sacrilegious. They circle dangerously around the secret places where incest, religion and poetry meet. The language is beautiful, witty and charming despite its many tricks and allusions: I can't think of any other writer under 40 who can give his characters such a degree of emotional and spiritual complexity.

His gifts do work to his disadvantage on occasion. His discursive dialogues, though always impressive and often entertaining, frequently stray way off the point. Preciousness is another danger. One young hero in particular is only a shade away from a baby voice - although he shares with his classmates, and, I suspect, the author, a taste for the scatalogical. Never mind. It is always thematically correct and in keeping with the Yeatsian understanding of human nature. This is a writer to watch out for.

Comments