Book review: Gridlocked

Triangulation by Phil Whitaker Phoenix House, pounds 12.99, 272pp
ONE ALWAYS feels a bit suspicious about novels that take their metaphorical baggage from the earth sciences. The figurative language has a habit of entwining itself around the frailer human emotions on display, and the result - as in Tim Parks's geologically-fixated Shear - can turn disagreeably reductive. No doubt facts are as runny as lava, but not every heart is as hard as quartzite.

At first glance, Phil Whitaker's second novel, set in the Directorate of Overseas Surveys, looks ripe to fall into this category. Sooner or later, you suspect, people will start talking about mapping out the contours of their lives and the whole thing will crumble to dust. That they don't, and it doesn't, is a tribute both to Whitaker's narrative skills and his ability to recreate a bygone world.

The landscape in question is the late 1950s, specifically the Civil Service block at Tolworth where Overseas Surveys has its lair. Here a complex triangular relationship is busy unravelling, involving John Hopkins, a worthy but pompous young man enraptured by his daily stake-outs over the contour maps, Helen, a less enraptured trainee, and the faintly glamorous Laurance, with whom Hopkins shares a flat when the former isn't out in the African bush.

The path of Hopkins's diffident courtship of his tyro cartographer, and her eventual decision that the real action lies elsewhere, runs through an oblique, three-way narration. Strand one features a present-day sixtysomething Hopkins travelling cross-country to revisit his lost love. Strand two is a third-person account of Helen's side of the story, while strand three takes in Laurance's letters and diaries. Though sometimes faintly irritating, these devices effectively maintain suspense. They allow Whitaker to seed in suggestive little hints about Laurance's mysterious private life and Hopkins's involvement in the wider colonial ferment that gives the novel its backdrop.

Whitaker takes a risk with his main narrative voice. Set against Hopkins, with his auntyish calls home to his housekeeper and his quite awesome conceit, Mr Pooter stands as a figure of lucid self-awareness. Presumably, Whitaker intended him as a vehicle for comic relief, but his self-satisfied chunterings are often a touch more risible than the author may have bargained for. On the other hand, the descriptions of Helen's first weeks in the Tolworth boarding house are conspicuously well done. And, in general, Triangulation is absorbing stuff.