BOOK REVIEW / Realms of virtual pornography: 'The Unloved' - Deborah Levy: Cape, 13.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
A BEAUTIFUL junkie sits at a computer keyboard, reinventing herself inthe bizarre guises of pornographic virtual reality. This image from Deborah Levy's new novel conveys the strange brilliance of her imagination and provides an apt metaphor for the effortless ease of her transition from one territory into another. If this kind of weirdness makes you nervous, don't give up yet. Levy's new book continues the experimentation of her earlier fiction, but it also offers more in the way of conventional narrative satisfactions.

Set in a French chateau (in a subversion of the English country house murder mystery), it begins with an inquiry into the death of an Englishwoman during a game of Murder in the Dark. An international group of tourists has been celebrating Christmas together, an experience that has involved a great deal of brooding intensity, glimpses of skeletons in cupboards and sexual versatality. They include Monika, a plump Pole who has abandoned her child in Gdansk, Wilhelm, a well-fed German whose wealth disappears into his wife's veins and their precocious daughter, Tatiana, 'the unloved child', a brilliant mimic and an unnerving observer of all that's going on.

The group also includes Nancy, daughter of American beatniks in Tangier, whose mother committed suicide when she was five, and Yasmina, an Algerian academic who was a prostitute in Tangier at the time. Nancy repeatedly begs Yasmina to tell her the story of her mother's death. When she finally does so, in the longest and most absorbing section of the book, her version of history - the suffering endured by Algerians at the hands of the colonising French - has little to do with opium-happy hippiedom. Glimpses of Nancy's mother, high on codeine and margaritas, interrupting her husband's whoring in a mounting crescendo of wisecracking hysteria, alternate with scenes from Yasmina's own childhood and adolescence. In these, moments of violence - castrations, torture, bombings - are juxtaposed with the sounds, smells and textures of North American life, all given equal prominence in Levy's measured, lyrical prose.

The undertones of violence and torture resound through all the strands of the novel, sometimes in fantasy, often in reality. Levy's preoccupation with them, and with sex (in all its weird and imaginative manifestations), allows her to explore the ways in which human beings can cross another borderline: into each other's bodies. It brings a sense of knife-edge tension to a novel that is ultimately about the gulf between the loved and 'the unloved', and the prose at times takes on almost biblical resonances. Levy attempts to convey the loneliness at the heart of human existence and the damage wrought by the absence of love - ideas that are voiced by the precocious Tatiana in a surreal and unexpectedly moving denoument.

Early in the novel, Monika, who has been disappointed in love, observes that 'there are fictions, technologies, geographies, and there is poetry'. All of those are present in this brave and brilliant book.

(Photograph omitted)