BOOK REVIEW / No senses, but sensibility: 'The Sandbeetle' - Zina Rohan: Hodder, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WITH HER debut, The Book of Wishes and Complaints, Zina Rohan climbed so high that it seemed the only place for her writing to go was down. It is a tribute to her talents and nerve that her second novel, The Sandbeetle, floats even higher.

Leo Beck, who tells his story, is not a robust man. For one thing he can neither smell nor taste; for another he is the child of Jews who believe they are German (his father gives his wife a handbag every time he commits adultery; she has so many they tumble out of the cupboard when she opens it), until Hitler makes them send their only son away to London. Here, Leo withdraws into a secret world of observation and understanding; he participates in his new life but will not live it. So he moves through school and Oxford where he meets a girl from the Shires - to him as exotic and lovely as English hymns. He goes down to her parents' house on Dunkirk weekend, to be greeted by a furious father with a gun. Leo is identified as a German and a traitor, and it is not until he drops his trousers that his host understands otherwise. But his host country does not.

Rohan has unearthed a bitter chapter of British history and made it a part of Leo Beck's story: the internment of enemy aliens leads the British government to deport thousands of refugees - most of them Jews - to Australia. Their harrowing voyage, tortured by illness and British soldiers, ends in the desert 'thrown like a bolt of terracotta corduroy . . . ruched and wrinkled over the horizon'. Here, Leo Beck is kept in a concentration camp until, seven months later, the Home Office apologises for its mistake.

Leo returns to London, where his parents have arrived from Germany, and to the woman he loves. His riveting story continues. Rohan is a teller of tales able to span years with one sharply etched scene, to hold her reader to events even while she is lifting them across the arc of a fable about pain and the heartless necessities of living.

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