Book review: Heathcliff in south London

THE BOY by Naeem Murr Fourth Estate pounds 14.99
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MEDIOCRE novels are easy to dissect and explore, but a really outstanding one is a slippery, cryptic thing. Naeem Murr's first novel moved, absorbed and surprised me - so much so that any attempt at precis seems dangerous. What I love best about it is its awkward, chaotic motion - as if at any moment it might slither from your grasp.

The "boy" (who uses a bunch of aliases throughout the novel) is the child of Sandra, an East End prostitute who carries books like Gide's The Immoralist in her bag. Sean, a married social worker, is seduced by her touching mix of breathless, bra-less tart and "complex, damaged child". After a series of sexual trysts with her, he realises how much he stands to lose and gets out. But the boy is already conceived.

After Sandra's random (but for him highly convenient) murder, Sean, guilty, relieved, fosters his son, welcoming him into his family without declaring to anyone the true relationship. He gets away with it - or so he believes. But the boy coolly obliterates his family, goading them towards death and desertion. We meet Sean - an edgy, shattered man - wandering the South London streets in search of his foster son.

Meanwhile, the boy is living with "the fatman" (client turned lover), a queasily pliant, sweating, whimpering homosexual who gets a kick out of being told off. He says he'll do anything for the boy, but will he kill? The scenes where the boy tests the fatman's loyalty are among the most vividly controlled in the book. The sexual glue of the relationship is only implied - a sweaty glance, a finger laid upon a wrist - but its presence is strong and sticky.

The boy is a chameleon soul, blushing and fading according to a person's secret needs and deepest fantasies. He is not well educated, yet he has a manipulative poise and eloquence which sit uneasily among Murr's blunt descriptions of his life. He is an abused child, a working prostitute, but possessed of a leggy innocence that moves and seduces, a poisonous beauty "that worked its way into whatever wounds you carried".

Guru-like, he encourages Sean's asthmatic son to risk his health to the point of death. Heathcliff-like, he makes love to Sean's adolescent, depressive daughter, knowing the wild intensity of their relationship will tip her to suicide. The Home for Boys where he briefly lives is run by a married ex-nun and ex-priest. To brittle, credulous Teresa (10 years in a nunnery, followed by 10 in an unconsummated marriage) he is a delectable angel, purity and fervour in human shape - a euphemistic focus for her thwarted sexuality. For her husband, Ronan, he dresses up in girl's clothes and plays the timid, inexperienced women of his fantasies. But what does the boy want from all this?

Murr's novel takes root and blooms quickly. His prose - at first glance almost lazily rough, gruffly sober - now and then bursts into flower, taking us straight to the passionate heart of his characters. Words and phrases take on an almost translucent elasticity, stretching to encompass new ideas, giving scenes a compelling visual wholeness and suggesting real complexity. The cast is large, but each new character and dynamic seems equally relevant and absorbing - a feat for a first novel. Characters are abandoned for chapters at a time, but only after the author has blown enough breath and life into them to keep them fixed at the edge of the mind, waiting.

It is one of Murr's triumphs that the boy remains eerily ambivalent, colourless and formless, a series of negatives and empty spaces, made flesh only by the responses of others. I finished the book with barely any sense of him, yet believed in him absolutely. This is a daring, upsetting piece of work, for its protagonist - beguilingly, tragically faceless - embodies, finally, the blank, unknowable vacuum which we call evil.

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