BOOKS FICTION: IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Moonlight into Marzipan by Sunetra Gupta, Phoenix House £14.99/£8.99. By a fluke, the narrator-hero of this bewitching novel chemically reproduces a veritable secret of creation in his garage laboratory in Calcutta. The young chemist Promothesh stumbles into world notoriety when his wife Esha's copper ear stud falls into his latest experiment and a basic food stuff is produced out of light: grass is made out of gold.

This miracle is the sort of scientific breakthrough the world loves to witness: the vaccine for small pox, a cure for syphilis. The author herself, who was born in Calcutta in 1965, divides her time in Oxford between researching infectious diseases and writing fiction.

An eccentric Englishman plucks Promothesh and Esha from the garage and brings them to England. But when an alluring ghost-writer, Alexandra Vorob- yova, is brought in to help Promothesh produce an autobiography, the scientist's heart is lost; Esha, who has suppressed her own mathematical genius for the making of chapattis, throws herself under a tube at Old Street station.

Sunetra Gupta concocts a dense richness out of her ingredients. For as well as the contemporary tale of science and jealousy, with its tangy blend of Bengali and British cultures, there are undercurrents of myth, fairytale, good old-fashioned alchemy and a meaty role for the devil himself.

After Alexandra in turn breaks Promothesh's heart by absconding with a smooth-talking academic bounder, in steps one Yuri Sen to carry on ghosting. Gupta has set out the contents of this slimmish volume in a form notoriously booby-trapped: that of the narrator addressing an absent character. Promothesh is telling it all to his lost love, Alexandra, in a "you...you...you" mode, a narrative trick that can drive a reader mad in minutes. But it works. Promothesh circles back and loop-de-loops his story to Alexandra, filling her in on the birth of her daughter Anya's baby, on trips to Calcutta, on Esha's childhood, on his own, and Yuri Sen's. His creator has a prodigious talent.

2 Hood by Emma Donaghue, Hamish Hamilton £14.99. For a lover, surviving bereavement is a dicey enough business without the added strain of keeping the relationship in the closet. Emma Donoghue negotiates this territory deftly and with rather startling humour, as her heroine Pen, a Catholic convent teacher, treads warily through the first week of mourning, hoping that her "stereo-typically dykey" shoes and general inconsolability at the graveside won't out her beloved Cara posthumously to her entire clan. 1990s Dublin comes complete with a droll lesbian support group which turns up a surprise infidelity and dubious consolation. But it is Pen's winning sanity and avid eye for absurdity - in the Church and in the bedroom - that keeps this confident, touching novel afloat.

Maggie Traugott

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