BOOK REVIEW / Hot under the collar: 'Air and Fire' - Rupert Thomson: Bloomsbury, 15.99

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A SHIP docks at a dusty mining town in Lower California, Mexico, some time in the 1890s. On board are a French engineer, Valence, a colleague of the celebrated Eiffel, and Valence's young wife, Suzanne. In the hold are 2,348 pieces of metal which, under the engineer's supervision, will be assembled into a church for the town's French community.

The expatriates' little world is complacent and gossip-ridden. They know little and care less about the native population. Valence fits in snugly, but Suzanne is less at home. She goes for walks where a white woman shouldn't, and has clairvoyant dreams. Her husband, immersed in his work, has almost ceased to notice her. In charge of the town's soldiery is the melancholy and unstable Captain Montoya, who owns a submarine. He develops an obsessive passion for Suzanne, and in the course of a brief cruise below the waves declares himself in terms which almost threaten rape. Meanwhile, Eiffel's misconceived project takes shape in the plaza. Under the June sun, the iron is sometimes too hot to touch. The town stifles in the heat. There is trouble among the Indian workers at the mine.

It would be hard to improve on these ingredients for a novel, or on the haunting central image of the alien metal church shipped from Paris to Mexico (reminiscent though this may be of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda). Rupert Thomson has added something more: a piano-playing American gold prospector with a soft heart and troublesome memories, who also falls in love with Suzanne and, in the least convincing pages of the book, rides out to rescue her from the desert into which she had but the flimsiest reason for going.

The pay-off for introducing this sentimental cowboy is to broaden the novel to take in the low-life characters of the town, and an entertaining bunch they are. But that could have been done without him, and the effect of bringing him in is a fatal shift of focus. The book becomes a rummage-bag in which love story, Western adventure and magical realism rub around together and in turn take charge of the plot and the prose.

Thomson writes well: his images can be evocative of strangeness and hallucination, but there is a wealth of detail, too; he has both poetic imagination and an ironic eye. All the more reason for keeping out sentences like the one which begins: 'Daylight had come down like an axe and split his good eye apart with one clean stroke.' Such lapses undermine the best things in the book.