BOOK REVIEW / Hell to pay for an infernal triangle: 'The Course of the Heart' - M John Harrison: Gollancz, 14.99 pounds

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IN THE PAST the name of Aleister Crowley has been invoked to justify - or excuse - bucketsful of baloney. M John Harrison's sixth novel proves to be the exception. It has an epigraph from Crowley but it reads more like a cross between John Fowles and Iris Murdoch.

This could suggest some sort of lumbering mammoth, but The Course of the Heart is a short, sharp shocker - a highly disciplined and carefully patterned work which tells of a triangular relationship between Pam Stuyvesant, Lucas Medlar and the unnamed narrator. The three met at Cambridge in the Sixties. One balmy - not to say barmy - night in May their mentor, Yaxley, in pursuit of divine pleasure, initiated them into the mysteries of the universe. What this quartet actually did in the golden meadow is never revealed, but the Bad Thing chases them all their lives and eventually wreaks its revenge.

Whether or not this withholding of information is supposed to represent the ultimate unknowability of human existence, there is too much else going on for the reader to feel cheated. Pam, who suffers from epilepsy and migraine, is tormented by the vision of a copulating couple palely loitering in mid-air. Lucas, her husband, is persecuted by a dwarf and takes to trashing his apartment in the middle of the night. The narrator, in his turn, is pestered by them both. After their divorce he is forced to shuttle between London, Manchester and Huddersfield to pick up the various pieces.

The otherworldly elements are not sensationalised, and are consequently all the more credible and creepy. The publisher-narrator is blessed with hindsight, not second sight, and is scrupulous in his attempts to convey what he saw, felt and smelt on each occasion. Harrison is very good at embedding the abstract in the concrete. Although the novel describes an arc from 'pleroma' to 'kenoma' - that is, from fullness to emptiness - the Gnosticism merely provides a framework for the moving story of the dissolution of three troubled souls.

The 'real' events of their personal histories are mirrored in the extracts from a weird travel book by one Michael Ashman. It soon becomes obvious that this has in fact been written by the teacher Lucas in an effort to make sense of Pam's painful disintegration. It outlines 'The Coeur', a mythical Utopia which exists between the unstable borders of Europe. Ashman comes to believe that 'the Coeur was only a kind of involution of his own life, a way of folding the outside of his experience to imply an inside, a meaning'. This is what Harrison, a true novelist, has done so skilfully. The result is genuinely haunting.

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