BOOK REVIEW / Women behind bars: Partial eclipse by Lesley Glaister: Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
AS A stylist Lesley Glaister is never less than impressive, but in her fifth novel she may drive her readers a little stir-crazy. Partial Eclipse interweaves three tales of female imprisonment. First, Jenny details her seven wretched days in solitary confinement, clutching her sanity for dear life. Next there is the story of Jenny's reckless love affair with a middle-aged saxophone player, which enslaves her memory. Finally Jenny imaginatively reconstructs what happened to her ancestor, Peggy Maybee, who was transported to Australia for stealing a peacock.

For all her emotional credibility, Jenny in her convict mode gets to be a drag. She catalogues the smells of her body, ticks off her days of solitary with love-bites on her arm, overdoes the aerobics and rubs her eye-sockets to see stars. Not exactly page-turning stuff, however well told, except in the hope for an answer to the teasingly dangled question - what is her crime?

Clues lie in the love affair, which begins in a Scottish hotel at Christmas where Jenny's innocent gaze meets the wandering eye of a compulsive philanderer. Though Tom is 30 years her senior, Jenny relishes his every wrinkle, ounce of flab and each scratch from his 'badgerish beard'.

Meanwhile, Jenny's grandmother has found a partner for her twilight years. Glaister has some much-needed fun with this character, named Ursula, who is a wearer of unusual handicrafts she calls sculptures sauvages (which tend to smell of seaweed), and who turns out not to be all she seems in the gender department.

While Jenny is throwing away her university place to live in squalor near Tom's far from unhappy marital home and to beg for amorous crumbs, the story of the peacock thief also unfolds. Historical Peggy has given birth to the local squire's bastard and dotes on the baby so, she tries to steal a peacock which captivates and taunts them both with its beautiful fan of 100 eyes.

It's a pretty stupid reason to get transported, but the scenes aboard ship in squalid captivity have a nightmarish vividness. Glaister achieves exquisite poetic moments, but she does get naggingly insistent about her symbolism. Sometimes she even does quick recaps in case we've been nodding, as if to say: don't forget the peacock feather, and then there's Neptune's trident and mind that eclipse. It is a subtler business working out how the three narrative strands overlap in their cumulative patterns of yearning, vanity, solitude and destruction.

This is a haunting, even a distressing book, written with tremendous skill but with too many characters soliciting pity. Everyone seems to be set on self- destruct, blindly chasing after the wrong dream or man or peacock. You spend the whole time wanting to shout at them: 'Look behind you.'

(Photograph omitted)