BOOK REVIEW / Through the eye of the needle: 'The Celibate' - Michael Arditti: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99

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THIS is an ambitious first novel. It takes many risks, including collaring the reader and making him listen to a single voice for its considerable length. The modulations and modifications of this voice become part of the plot, which traces the liberation of a human soul through a gradual revelation of the meaning of passion and the Passion.

The narrator is an ordinand who has endured a nervous crisis and is now in therapy. We never learn his name. For most of the book, the reader is addressed as though he were the therapist. At other times the narrator, who has taken a job as a tourist guide to places of horror and pain (the sites of Jack the Ripper's murders, a plague-

ravaged village), seems to be addressing a group of dense but hypnotised rubberneckers.

When first we meet him, the ordinand's tone is old-ladylike in its mincing coyness. The keynotes are zeal and repression, each feeding the other. Less certainly achieved is a note of seigneurial insouciance, for he is intended to have been raised in a great house and by parents of splendiferous means. Although the story that attaches to the childhood house lends a decoratively melodramatic sub-plot, it undermines the serious heart of the book. One senses a brio kept in check, as though to exhibit it in a book treating of such portentous matters might be impious.

As therapy and scrutiny of his past proceed, the narrator's faith deserts him and his sexual life unfolds, teaching him to give and receive a different kind of love in a world desolated by Aids, which provides the context for his contemporary via dolorosa back to faith. There is a powerful personal pressure behind the telling of this story, but it is a difficult subject to mould into a novel.

The best thing about The Celibate is its unfashionable and affecting religious theme. A central metaphor is the camel passing through the needle's eye; the book is somewhat like a camel, stately and supercilious at first glance, slow-

moving, peculiar in proportion, but making its own journey with a certain impressive ungainly grandeur and challenging another creature to do it quite as well.