BOOK REVIEW / Enlightening transformations: 'Newton's Niece' - Derek Beaven: Faber, 14.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS IS an intelligent, moving and highly readable novel of ideas. With the author, Derek Beaven, living in Berkshire (according to the back flap), it is also something of a triumph in a novelistic genre that is often said to be congenitally unsuited to the British literary tradition, and best left to East European writers with strange, unpronouncable names.

The book is dense with questions of time and gender and with doppelgangers, economics and politics. But despite the epic scale and ambition, the novel rarely feels overburdened. There is enough detail, enough mastery of the craft of fiction, for us to feel involved with the characters; the ideas seem to arise from the situations, rather than, as is often the case, the situations from the ideas.

The hardest part of the book - at least for readers with no natural taste for the bizarre - is its plot structure, which has roots in science fiction and the Gothic novel. It is an unlikely story, narrated by a cleaner who works in a London mental hospital and has lived a previous life as the mute, wolf-like nephew of Sir Isaac Newton. After a miraculous piece of chemistry, the boy is transformed into a beautiful young woman, whom Newton passes off as his niece, Kit. She comes to live with the scientist in London and her adventures there form the bulk of the book. Whatever the science-fictional motivations for this transformation, psychologically it provides the novel with an ideal fish out of water through whose eyes to view the world of early 18th-century London. Kit is a woman who knows what it is like to be a boy; she understands her uncle's great rational Enlightenment project but is aware of all it leaves out; she is courted for her looks, but feels the slavery and injustice of being a woman.

Most crucially, Kit doesn't seem to understand love. She becomes confused when Charles Montagu, a grandee of enormous wealth and influence, announces his undying passion for her. In a series of comic scenes, Charles tries to declare his love. 'But what does that mean for me?' answers Kit. 'What am I expected to do?' she sighs, proceeding to take off her clothes, only to find that this destroys his ardour - puzzling when she had thought this the point of the game. Kit longs to know sexual gratification, and seeks revenge on a friend of Newton's who raped her when she was a wolf-boy, and whom she believes might just hold the clue to her incapacity.

Kit does eventually find happiness of a sort with another woman and an Italian eunuch, arranging for a maid to impersonate her in bed with Charles. At the same time, she tries to enrich her understanding of the world in a project which runs counter to the arid nature of Newton's work: 'My uncle's project is to control; mine is to escape,' she decides. This novel may sound strange, but it is provocative, and highly entertaining.

(Photograph omitted)