BOOK REVIEW / Nothing is simple any more: The end of the century at the end of the world by C K Stead, Harvill pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
STORIES used to have a beginning, a middle and an end. These days they often start with the middle, go on to the end, give you the beginning and finish with a bit more middle. Such novels seem to be made expressly for critical dissection, though they are often a tantalising read, not least because they reveal their secrets slowly.

The New Zealand novelist, poet and academic C K Stead handles such complexity masterfully in this novel. Laura, dully married to rich but philistine Roger, re-encounters her once-radical previous boyfriend, Dan, now a Cabinet minister. This triggers a piecing-together of Laura and Dan's history, some of it told through a fragment written by Dan, some through a novelisation of the affair written by Laura, some of it Laura's first-person narrative and some authorial omniscience: between them these accounts offer variations of the truth. And as if this isn't intricate enough, there is a sub-plot arising from Laura's thesis, about a New Zealand writer who happens to have been Dan's aunt. Rather as in A S Byatt's Possession, the love life of a woman of letters emerges alongside that of her modern-day biographer.

This interplay of possible realities never degenerates into a mere intellectual exercise. Stead's characters are moving and convincing, the events well-observed and sometimes funny - the 40th birthday party organised for Roger by his legal colleagues, for instance, is a study in naffness: the invitation calls for 'men in black tie, women in black stockings'; Roger is tickled to learn from the speeches that he is 'the biggest prick in the profession'; a girl in fishnet tights leaps from his cake . . . Wryly targeted elsewhere are the zeal of the besandalled leftists of Laura and Dan's youth, the hypocrisies of campaigning television reporters, and the stuffiness and racism of the conservative rich (embodied by Laura's none the less likeable father).

This dextrous novel someimes wears a serious expression, too. The portrayal of Laura's radical roue friend Maurice is subtle and skilled, making us mourn a man who may be the most destructive in the book. And Laura's narrative is one of the most convincing women's voices written by a man I have read in a while.