BOOK REVIEW / Luckless in London: 'Dunedin' - Shena Mackay: Heinemann, 14.99

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SHENA MACKAY'S ambitious novel begins and ends in New Zealand, in the first decade of the century. Jack Mackenzie, a Presbyterian minister and would-be botanist, arrives in Dunedin with his wife, Louise, their two young children, Sandy and Kitty, and a servant girl, Lilian. Jack has come from Scotland to replace the Reverend Craigie, who has recently died in a thermal pool at Rotorua, after trying to rescue his beloved Jamesina, who stumbled into the boiling mud. 'Whatever the cause of the disaster, the Craigies were dealt with as cruelly and efficiently as a pair of lobsters in the hands of a chef.'

The opening chapters hint that Dunedin is going to be a family saga spanning several generations, with all kinds of skeletons in the cupboard, but it doesn't turn out like that. The bulk of the narrative is concerned with Jack and Louise's grandchildren, Olive and William, who share a house in south-east London. The time is 1989, and the luckless brother and sister are now middle-

aged. William has resigned as headmaster of a local school, blaming himself for the terrible death of one of his students on the Paris Metro. Olive has weathered a disastrous marriage to a randy university lecturer and a year-long affair with Terry Turner, a promising novelist of spectacular yobbishness. Terry is the source of much accurately acid comedy, whether conducting - through a haze of vodka and Arc de Triomphe red wine - a creative writing course in a country retreat, or putting the boot into Tolstoy in a column entitled 'Sacred Cows'.

Shena Mackay shows with her usual sleight of hand that Olive and William are lonely in subtly different ways. Olive, indeed, is on the verge of madness, in the grip of inexplicable tantrums. In one of the novel's most affecting scenes she steals a black baby. William does not believe the story she spins about how she came by the child, and his suspicion is confirmed when he hears the anguished parents pleading for the boy's return on the radio. While Olive is sleeping he leaves the baby outside a nearby hospital. William's distress and panic are brilliantly and touchingly conveyed, as are Olive's anger and sense of loss when he reveals what he has done.

Shena Mackay notices a London that passes most writers by. She sees not only the vagrants, gabbling eccentrics, litter and dog shit that other novelists have brought to our jaded attention, but the flora and fauna, the weird buildings of Brixton, the rented rooms that register decay and failure through open front doors, the mothers at bus stops relieving their boredom by slapping their toddlers. Pigeons, starlings, thrushes, blackbirds are observed, too - and a pair of black swans in St James's Park. Her London is not a convenient backdrop - it is the capital itself, vividly and freshly set down in glancing detail.

My sole criticism of the novel has to do with the character of Jay Pascal, a New Zealander who lives for a while as a squatter in a house named Dunedin. His mysteriousness somehow eludes Shena Mackay, who explains rather than portrays him. His eventual incarceration fits uneasily into the overall design of the book, and the author veers towards the sentimental. A note of something close to special pleading is suddenly heard.

But this is a minor blemish. I shall remember Dunedin for Sandy Mackenzie, the father of Olive and William, a feckless cavalry-twilled cad captured in two or three bleakly comic pages, and for the wonderful dialogue. One sample: ' 'It's not that I object to your being a dyke,' Mr Dooley was telling his daughter at the back of the shop, 'if that's what you've set your heart on. It's the thought of all that money we wasted on guitar lessons that breaks my heart'.'

(Photograph omitted)