BOOK REVIEW / Lashings of source: 'The Mermaids in the Basement' - Marina Warner: Chatto, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE trouble with using myths, Bible stories, paintings and fables as springboards for fiction is that the writer must keep referring back to them rather than letting the characters rip and dictate what happens next. Some of the stories in Marina Warner's new collection are even labelled with their classical or biblical sources, so alerting the reader to the author's constraints.

The limitations of the approach are sometimes all too apparent. In Warner's update on the Mary and Martha schools of hostessing, for instance, she is not inclined to have her messianic guest belch or dance on the table. Nor is there any chance of the Moses-inspired baby in 'Salvage' being cast back into the proverbial bullrushes.

But if some characters lack autonomy and spontaneity, others have plenty body on them. Acres of ripe, nubile, mainly female flesh are quiveringly manifest, giving vivid contemporaneity and corporeality to the archetypal likes of Eve and Ariadne. And Warner does catch Noah fiddling with himself disgracefully, confirming his daughter-in- law's view that he is a wanker.

Some of the starting points are wonderfully arcane: a Muslim version of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba which pivots strangely on a trick with mirrors and the question of how hairy her majesty's legs are; a 19th-century case of anorexia fatally exploited by the girl's fanatically religious father to demonstrate that the soul is more vital than the body. Warner's whimsical update of the temptation of Eve takes the form of a tropical fruit drink promotion in a busy supermarket, and a latter-day Ariadne is rescued from the celibate community on Naxos by a botanist travelling by hot-air balloon in search of information on spores. Both of these stories buzz with sensuous imagery and descriptions. When Warner lavishes her verbal largesse, it is frequently in the service of landscapes, procreation and commestibles.

The best character studies and the least proscribed by referents are 'Be My Baby', a disarmingly sympathetic black tale told from the point of view of a babysnatcher, and 'Heartland', in which an ambitious journalist interviewing the daughter of a great 20th- century thinker weighs up her scruples and finds them wanting. And if there is something unsporting about actually headlining stories with text and verse of your allusions - like printing the solution next to the crossword - it at least allows us to preen ourselves afterwards with 'Of course that was reminiscent of Veronesi's Susannah and the Elders', whether we twigged it or not.

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