BOOK REVIEW / Our man in where-was-it?: The high flyer by Nicholas Shakespeare: Harvill pounds 14.99/ pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
HALF AS long again as his first novel, the enthusiastically received The Vision of Elena Silves, Nicholas Shakespeare's The High Flyer is an adventurous work. It is an examination of the degenerative aspects of passion, a meditation on the way the political invades the private, and an attempt to yoke together various cultures by transplanting some of the equipment of the magic realist novel to a (not quite) European locale.

Thomas Wavery is the eponymous high flyer, a Consul-General tipped, before he fell in love with Catharine, a much younger woman, for a top job in Lisbon. Instead he ends up at Abyla, across the straits of Gibraltar, an out- of-whack run-down nothing of a place where the church clock tells the wrong time. Here, despite having his suitcase and passport stolen by an ape, and regardless of the fact that his official residence is in the same dilapidated state as his marriage, Wavery is to prepare for the royal opening of a tunnel linking Europe with Africa.

Shakespeare spends too little time on Wavery and his ruined marriage, and too much on numerous sub-plots and ill-established minor characters. This is unfortunate, since whenever he gets Wavery and his wife together, what is said is true and wise. Half- way through the book they have a chillingly true-to-life row, in which moments of supreme anger and anguish are followed by moments of the utmost banality.

The High Flyer is less a narrative than a collection of moments or poetic rivulets. Too often Shakespeare's imagery is precious rather than precise - a memory is 'fumigated', a moustache looks like a 'circumflex', feelings are 'sewed away' - and it distances rather than enfolds; one is left thinking about the art and not the life. Occasionally an image startles - as Wavery's wife leaves him, 'he felt a pause in the air above' - but such instances are few and far between. Shakespeare is a novelist of promise, but perhaps the best thing to say about this book is that it shows that one needs a long run to make a high jump.