BOOKS FICTION: NEW FICTION IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Whit by Iain Banks, Little, Brown pounds 15.99. His last (non-sci- fi) novel Complicity hurtled us into the mind of a serial killer; as if to demonstrate that the male and the manic are not his only modes, here he unveils a female, teenage narrator, Beloved Isis Whit, the holy child of an obscure Scottish sect, the Luskentyrians. Isis is a tomboy and a virgin, and with her bizarre religious beliefs and muted sexuality she is very reminiscent of Frank Cauldhame, the anti-hero of The Wasp Factory. She is the light to Frankie's darkness, however; where Banks' most famous novel beckoned us into disturbing territory, Whit is dangerously bland, despite a cast of crusties, porn stars and religious lunatics. When Isis is forced to travel among the fallen - ie the outside world - to find out what has happened to her apostate cousin, Morag, her simplicity gives Banks the chance to turn his satirical eye on modern life. All his savvy cultural references are in place - a Texan fairy godmother speechifies about Waco, Isis herself is a dead ringer for Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries - but with its laughably obvious baddie and perfunctory wind- up this is lenten fare after the raw meat of Complicity.

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 Feay

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