2 The Breezes by Joseph O'Neill, Faber pounds 8.99. John Breeze lives with his sister Rosie and her boyfriend Steve. Neither of them knows why, since in a previous move they left him behind like an unwanted pet. But feeble Steve turned up again, and now spends his days sitting meekly on the sofa while Rosie alternately harangues and cuddles him. Jobless John, who gave up accounting for chair-making, is stuck in an equally unrewarding relationship with high-flier Angela. But the junior Breezes are too busy sneering at their hopeless old dad to notice how petty failures and pessimism are grinding them down. Impressively, O'Neill handles tragedy and farce with equal aplomb.
Eugene Breeze's wife was killed by a lightning bolt, his dog is incontinent, he is the focus of passenger hatred on railway station billboards - "Hello, I'm Gene Breeze, your Network Manager" - and as if the flak he takes at work weren't enough, he is an incompetent amateur football ref at weekends. The book piles ill-fortune upon catastrophe until Gene's maddening hopefulness finally splinters. Though you can see the plot's sudden upturn a mile off, O'Neill has laid his powder trail so thickly, the book ends with an optimism as irresistible as it is hardwon.
2 The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 14.99. Martyn Glover, the illusionist of the title, keeps a room always locked, into which he periodically vanishes. The fact that this Bluebeard motif doesn't instantly tip off his young wife Stella that her husband is a thoroughly shady cove rather diminishes her attractiveness as a narrator. Star, as he calls her, gives up her career for this nebulous love. She has never even found out where her husband's money comes from. His inner life is in the forbidden room, where he practises his magic. Johnston's writing is supple and quick, though her tale verges on the melodramatic: Martyn specialises in tricks with doves, while Stella has a bird-phobia of Tippi Hedren proportions; Stella's bitch of a daughter and the manipulative conjuror himself are two-dimensional monsters. As the story opens, he has just been killed in a IRA bomb attack , while another character succumbs to Aids: two rather modish fictional deaths which heighten the sense of unreality. In fact both writer and narrator seem just as devious as the hated Martyn: Johnston makes Stella, predictably enough a novelist, say early on: "Starting at the tail end is part of my writer's bag of tricks. I suppose I could call myself an illusionist also." Suzi FeayReuse content