Books: Boxing clever

Pandora's Box by Alice Thompson, Virago pounds 12.99
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The myth of Pandora, a woman created by the gods with the sole purpose of wreaking disaster on mortal man, is a tale full of misogynistic possibilities. That man should suffer through woman for his acquisition of knowledge isn't exactly a new or even uncommon cultural theme, and in borrowing the story of Pandora, Alice Thompson's latest novel might have risked having nothing new to say about it.

But happily this proves not to be the case. Pandora's Box is an inventive and strangely surreal tale, if disconcertingly uneven. The novel begins with the sort of highly visual scene readers of Thompson's previous work, Justine, will be familiar with. One night, plastic surgeon Dr Noah Close opens his front door to find a woman standing outside enveloped in flames. He takes her to his hospital - a privately run, futuristic building which has a telling lack of definition: "The smell of the hospital was bleached and anaesthetised. The scents of the body, of sweat or excreta, had been emptied out." Like the hospital, the woman too is without definition - her face and body are so badly burnt, Noah must completely re-build them. When he does though, he discovers her to be perfectly beautiful, without the characteristic blemishes and imperfections of the average human body. Obsessed by the woman he calls Pandora - her flames are also symbolic of the mythical crime of mortal man, the stealing of fire by Prometheus - he takes her home and they live together as man and wife before one night, Noah returns to find her brutally murdered.

Here the novel becomes surreal in ways that might be reminiscent of Angela Carter, but which is not without its own problems. Noah heads off in chase of the man he believes to be the murderer, a character called Lazarus. He engages the help of a detective, the man-woman Venus. Both these characters contribute to the mythical atmosphere of the novel, but they also seem strangely superfluous.

While Thompson is strong on the themes of her tale, like the recurrence of reflections, doubles, ghosts and so on, the anchoring of this symbolism is much needed. This is a narrative which leaps from location to location, and whose characters become gradually less explicable. Noah's reproduction of the female body in the guise of the perfect Pandora is criticised by Lazarus: "The sacredness of the individual ... How terrible it would be to understand that stranger inside. To actually get to know oneself absolutely. Suddenly to think to oneself 'I know you. You'll never surprise me again'."

Noah may have tried to rob Pandora of that inexplicability, an attribute the novel clearly embraces. As a result, he is torn away from the small village we are told he inhabits at the beginning of the novel, to speed across the Nevada desert to get to Lazarus. Thompson makes astute perceptions on body politics, but sometimes the baggage of the myth and the thriller narrative seem too heavy for the delicate structure of her novel.

This shows in her writing too, which is careful without being laboured, and so all the more unexpected when the occasional cliche emerges (coffee is described as being "like tar"). Pandora's Box holds more than a few treasures, and they are to be chosen carefully.