BOOK REVIEW / End to end games: 'Occam's Razor' - Maureen Duffy: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE TITLE of this book at once tells all and sets up a sharp contrast with the multiplicative gifts of Maureen Duffy. William of Occam established one tradition of philosophical language by saying 'Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem' - that is, shave things down to their essentials. Maureen Duffy has written a novel whose intent and exposition are clear - her characters learn that, distracted, we know too late what matters - but which also displays great relish for urban diversity.

Occam's Razor is an exciting book. Its plot, at once dramatic and ostensibly conventional, is tailor-made for a writer as adept at articulating both melodrama and routine as is Duffy. To give the plot away would at one level be unsporting; at another it would be all but immaterial: its unashamed intellectuality gives pleasure for its precision rather than its surprise.

At the beginning, two old men play chess. The careful prose, too, moves like chess pieces, but without any self-congratulatory loss of pace. The game that Orazio and Pearce are playing may seem complicated and full of Knight's moves, but its endgame is irreducible. In each case, the pawns are the player's child, and, more subtly, his past and that of his family. Away from the chess board, Pearce and Orazio face not each other but opponents who are as powerful, to the modern mind, as any devil: Pearce is trying to hide his son from the IRA, Orazio to protect his family from the Mafia. The boardgame moves of the book could tend towards the schematic, but Maureen Duffy's descriptive talent, and her sympathy with the marginal lives of Pearce, Orazio and their families, keep her writing alive.

Occam's Razor sets out to satisfy on more than one level and succeeds in doing so. While it is a well-executed tale of two equally matched but differently pitched men enacting a struggle with evil and personal sin (sex and drink have here a rich underlife that a puritan propagandist might approve), it is also the account of London's absorbent and absorbing energy. The novel's hero is London. Maureen Duffy's fondness for the various pockets of the city (shops, street markets), and the interest with which she endows each life that enters her novel, give her book a honeycombed richness.

'You can't make a good connection without stripping down to the wire,' says Pearce, by trade an electrician. In Orazio's recollected lost Italian homelife, the strongest gifts of this committed novelist reveal themselves, seasoning and leavening a book large in its scope and ambition, but paradoxically at its best when it rises above its declared ends and rides on the detailed inventions of its maker.