BOOK REVIEW / In brief

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The Independent Culture
Jasmine Nights by S P Somtow, Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99. It's Huckleberry Finn Thailand-style. A precocious 12-year-old Thai boy, during the year before he is sent to Eton, breaks out of his privileged world and comes of age with all cylinders firing. Little Frog - who is so steeped in classic mythology he doesn't speak, he orates - suddenly discovers sex, death and rock'n'roll (it's 1963) - and adventure, through the superbly realised black American character, Virgil 'I is from Georgia' O'Fleary. The boys spy on Little Frog's three maiden aunts (Nit-nit, Noi-noi and Ning-nong), who are all busy playing Carry On Doctor with the British gynaecologist. They find Little Frog's nanny under the love-spell of a shaman. They keep the secret of the transvestite gardener.

Little Frog narrates it all in epic mode, and does turn out to be truly heroic, rescuing his screwy greatgrandmother from a blazing house, like Aeneas. (These two have always enjoyed a liberal psychodrama, with her calling him Norman and him pretending she's stuffed.) Issues of racial prejudice are handled comically but to excellent effect. Like many a Greek hero, Little Frog is rather in the dark about his parents, who turn out to be working secretly for the CIA, but return in time for his theatrical production of Orpheus, set in the American Civil War with black Virgil as Abraham Lincoln. It probably goes too wild at times, but the enchantment never cloys. Maggie Traugott

The Dead Heart by Douglas Kennedy, Little Brown pounds 15.99. Rootless, thirtysomething American journalist Nick Hawthorne, about to take up his umpteenth deadbeat post, finds a 1957 map of Australia in a second- hand bookshop. Horribly attracted by 'all that nothing', he decides to stuff the boring job and fly to Oz for a voyage into the heart of darkness. His first stop, Darwin, is a hell-hole ('I asked the desk clerk to point me in the direction of downtown. 'You're in it,' he said') but before long he's driving into the outback and picking up disquieting people on the way. A man he gives a lift to gets out in the middle of the aching vastness and says: 'Piece of advice. mate. Don't go out there. Keep on the main road . . . You're a main road man.' Nick is about to find out how true, and, against his expectations, how admirable this is.

Kennedyis a travel writer, and the book is filled with jaunty journalese, acid pen-portraits and the faint sneer of one reporting back to the Sunday supplements. But his narrator gets an enjoyable (for us) come-uppance: after looking too hard and too blithely into the abyss, the abyss starts to get rather interested in him. It begins when he picks up an amazonian, tinny-drinking, hard-loving backpacker named Angie. The product of a small town called Wollanup, she seems amusingly direct and unsophisticated to this jaded roue, and her ominous philosophy, 'Australian laws ain't Wollanup laws', merely quaint. But when he decides it's time to dump her he finds Angie has other plans, which involve dragging him back home to meet her folks.

What ensues is a mordant narrative of physical and emotional abuse among the malevolent inhabitants of an inbred community. Kennedy pulls off that most difficult feat of being hilariously funny and frightening at the same time: his tale is so preposterous that you'd think it would short-circuit fear, but his story-telling is so deft, and the build-up so detailed and convincing, that the denouement - dusty, endless roads, a terrifying chase - proves to be heart-thumpingly effective. For a first novel it's brilliantly adept and can be belted through at one sitting, with occasional breaks to wipe the sweat away. Suzi Feay

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