BOOK REVIEW / Design fault in the male psyche: 'Alice's Masque' - Lindsay Clarke: Cape, 14.99 pounds

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'DID you know, by the way,' asks the witchy-wise old heroine towards the end of Alice's Masque, 'that the very word consider means to be together with the stars, to put yourself in touch with their intelligence?' It was another Latinate word with stellar links that kept popping into my mind, though, as I waded through Lindsay Clarke's new novel: 'disastrous'.

This is Clarke's first fiction since he won the Whitbread Best Novel award in 1989 for The Chymical Wedding. The new work is also much preoccupied with the archetypes and rituals that underpin human behaviour. Where past and present in the earlier book were linked by alchemy and the hermetic tradition, here a contemporary story of injured womanhood, faultily designed men and redemptive ordeals is seen against the mythic templates provided by medieval romance and Dark Age legend. 'There's always a story beneath the story,' thinks Alice, but Clarke's over-insistence on this gives his novel, paradoxically, the feel of a building that's all lofty upper levels and no ground floor.

You suspect that this will be the case when Ronan, the man whose purification is the book's main concern, accidentally runs over a swan and leaves it to die while he's driving to Cornwall to persuade his ex-mistress, Leah, to resume their adulterous relationship. Now, if that's not significant, my name's Parsifal. Matters perk up briefly when his arrival in the area suspiciously coincides with the discovery next morning of the mutilated corpse of a young woman on a nearby beach. But Clarke is much less interested in deriving narrative tension from this than in using the girl's fate to enforce a sense of apocalyptic crisis in the relations between the sexes.

Shelving idle curiosity about who committed this deed, the novel also ensures that the dead woman remains 'bereft of all identity save that of victim'. She is, Alice reflects, 'entirely representative' and 'nothing but a symbol'. If Clarke's faintly tendentious use of this figure can be felt in such wording, the irony is that none of the other characters live with a recalcitrant individuality, either.

The most successfully realised is Alice, a reclusive artist, weaver, part- time mage and former medievalist who settled in the area 50 years ago after a scandalous divorce and now provides refuge for her Ronan-scarred niece, Leah. It is Alice who decides to tackle the problem of the hero's defective soul. Trapped in her care for the night, the exhausted, slightly concussed man is conducted through a love trial and purificatory masque that is prompted by Alice's recounting of stories from medieval romance and Grail legend. Posed now with an un-Chaucerian poker face, the question from 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' about women's chief desire is eventually answered with a re-definition: to have 'sovereignty' is not to have power, but to have one's sovereign existence recognised.

Ronan's dreamlike adventures in this strange From Ritual to Penzance- landscape are an unusual way for a middle-aged man to gather strength and enlightenment to decide between mistress, wife and celibacy. If that sounds a crude way of describing an experience that forces the hero to grapple with the causes of male selfishness, its tone is meant to reflect the increasing impatience you feel at the disproportionate attention paid to his feelings over those of Leah or his (virtually non-existent) spouse. As Ronan remarks about allegory, 'there's always the feel of a fix about it'. Of the novel as a whole, what Leah said of the male sex could apply: 'there's a design fault . . . by and large (it) won't do.'