BOOK REVIEW / Guerrillas in the mist: Blue Burneau by Glyn Maxwell, Chatto pounds 9.99

Click to follow
THE first novel from our self-styled 'Shakespeare of the suburbs' is a twisty thriller of assassination, war and revolution that reads in places like an improbable Alistair MacLean. Its climax is a fight to the death on a deserted island, then a scramble along mountain ledges in a rockslide. The book jacket says things like 'gripping' and 'psychological'. The reader thinks: trouble.

But Maxwell seems to know what he's doing. Maris Burneau is a young bodyguard for an imperial dignitary visiting a surly colony. Distracted for a moment, he loses his charge, who is murdered by a guerrilla fighter. Burneau is blamed, then suspected, and hides out with a sympathetic local family, watching his pursuers' steady progress on the television news.

This done, Maxwell tosses in a few ambiguities and inventions that MacLean wouldn't think of. He makes Burneau irritating: flopping listlessly around the house, bemoaning his plight - shades of Josef K - being seduced by mother and daughter, and constantly mocked by an invisible angel of death. And he traps him in a subtly evoked world, part-Latin American, part-French colonial, all humidity and crumbling avenues and names like 'Fencile' and 'Magnick'.

Burneau escapes, however, joins the guerrillas, and becomes - to his own bewilderment - a kind of military clairvoyant, masterminding their anti-colonial insurgency with cryptic predictions. Events turn gently, unexpectedly comic around him as the guerrillas, led by an ex-professor of viniculture, ('We have planted, we have grown, let us harvest, let us drink'), turn out to be more keen on drinking than fighting. Near-captive in their mountain headquarters, Burneau settles into a daze of wine, work and endless games of scissors-paper-stone.

This slackening is fine at first, but starts to pall as the pages roll by like the constant mountain clouds, and Burneau grows maudlin and ponderously philosophical about History and Truth and 'sexual love'. 'I feel that whatsoever gift I had,' he moans, 'which has caused nothing but struggle and triumph and misery and no peace - the giver . . . will not let me open it.' Burneau's 'gift' isn't that compelling - just a series of sub-Marquez visions of storms and heavenly voices - and Maxwell's sentences become self-conscious and over- stuffed, full of abstract nouns rather than the carefully wielded adjectives of his verse.

Fortunately, the guerrillas win the war despite their inebriation, and the narrative comes back into focus. Burneau leaves his eyrie to become Minister of Reconciliation in the new revolutionary government, and then - in a neat inversion of the opening - is threatened with assassination himself. Suddenly, the book is seething again with deceptions, disguises, coincidences, melodrama verging on farce. The magic realism that grated earlier now lets the plot leap along: Burneau becomes a fugitive again, is apparently doomed, then rescued three times - once in a public lavatory - hides out in a treehouse, and, at the end, literally sails off into the sunset. Maxwell escapes with him, from a potential muddle of a first novel. But he shouldn't give up reading thrillers just yet.