Book review: The mystery that lurks along the canals

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99, 264pp
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The Independent Culture
AFTER ATTRACTING critical acclaim for his first three novels, Rupert Thomson suddenly had a commercial hit with his fourth, The Insult. Brilliant location work - a lost city floating somewhere between ideas of postwar central Europe and Edward Hopper's North America - and the narrative's fundamental ambiguity (can Martin Blom see or is he, as claimed, blind?) made it utterly compelling. Bloomsbury threw a lot of money at the next novel, Soft. While enjoyable and admirable for the way in which the ingenious structure folded softly in on itself, Soft moved towards a conclusion that was too long signposted.

The Book of Revelation, however, is so good it doesn't need a PR campaign. It also represents an extremely shrewd move on Thomson's part. By devoting 100 pages to a man's abduction and incarceration by a trio of lustful women, he can unpack at leisure a number of male sexual fantasies while examining the differences (if any) between consensual relationships and those in which one party has his foreskin chained to the wall.

In Amsterdam, a dancer leaves the rehearsal studio to buy his girlfriend a pack of cigarettes. He is abducted by three women who keep him prisoner in a white room and force him to submit to their sadistic and fetshistic sexual urges. Hooded and often otherwise undressed, the women offer no clue to their motivations.

Determined to survive his ordeal, he starts cataloguing the women's distinguishing features. They are gradually sketched in as characters and, although they must remain faceless, they exert an ominous presence in the narrative, both during and after the narrator's 18 days as their prisoner.

It's not my wish to spoil the pleasure you are bound to draw from the gradual revelation of what exactly happens to the narrator and how he later reacts. I'll just say that if you think the first half a hard act to follow, the second is even more intellectually intriguing, viscerally gripping and emotionally engaging. The only reason you'll put the book down is to postpone the dreadful moment when you finish it.

The final 100 pages thrum with an exhilarating tension between moments of soaring joy and a constant bass-line of tragic inevitability. There's nothing you want more than for the dancer's story to end happily, and yet how can it when he has been so damaged?

The writing is full of surprises, as if on Thomson's desk there's a card- index full of original similes and descriptions to make you look at the world afresh ("a pale light, milky, the colour of old-fashioned paper glue"). Walk-on parts are animated by interesting and unusual details. Descriptions of people and places appeal to the senses ("I loved the sweet smell of her, a mixture of parsnip and oat biscuits").

Thomson has made the Amsterdam setting so much a part of the novel, you feel that if this story were to come true, it could take place only in the Dutch city. Indeed, towards the end is a passage that may be read as a rationalisation for the choice of location. Again, I won't spoil it by revelation, but it is so subtle and so right, you feel like breaking into applause.