Books: A swampy tale deep in the heart of Essex

James Urquhart can't find the focus of a bold voyage from colonial forests to the ruins of Stansted Airport; Horse Latitudes by Jay Merrick Fourth Estate, pounds 10.99, 276pp
JAY MERRICK'S debut novel spins an engrossing yarn of self-discovery that reaches into the murky backwaters of colonial administration in 1930s South America. Despatched from London to make his way at the Roraima offices of Spivey & Co, Shipping Agents, James Freyn glides easily into the pukkah social circles of the expat Temhari Club. But a public slip of etiquette and a commission to fetch two horses from the mysterious Luchenne's ranch in the forest reveal to Freyn how brittle the civilised veneer really is.

Freyn is now 106, and living in a cardboard box in the Delta when the young scientist, Walter Cowley, happens upon him. It is 2021, and the Delta is a squat of outcasts scraping a living on what remains of Stansted Airport after it was destroyed by an architectural-terrorist cell. Cowley is entranced by Freyn's lucid recall of events, and transcribes it.

Merrick is a confident storyteller, but his style seems consciously resonant of other works. He has great fun creating Demcorp, the Orwellian state authority presiding over all in 2021; and plausibly hints at events such as "the designer fashion hostage crises of 2006". Yet Freyn's voice shares the inveigling allure of Conrad's sea-tales; there is an easy comparison between Horse Latitudes and Heart of Darkness.

Merrick builds the novel's sensations steadily from Freyn's ostracism through his unsettling encounter with the Kurtz-like Luchenne, his malaria-ridden return with the horses, and his embarcation for New Orleans. But the experiences of good and evil that overpower Freyn are almost abstract, lacking the substance to haunt him over 80 years.

Either Merrick is flattering by imitation, or Freyn is a front for Merrick's own fulminations on the chimerical nature of history, memory and sanity. While the first-hand account of the distressing transport of the horses is sharp and exciting, taken as a whole, Horse Latitudes remains just out of focus.