Books: From Woolwich into stormy seas

ACTS OF MUTINY by Derek Beaven Fourth Estate pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
IN AN act of authorial insubordination, Derek Beaven, who charged on to the scene in 1994 with his century- and sex-changing Gothic, sci- fi epic Newton's Niece, has dared to lower his voice in his follow-up. Compared to his dense debut, this is a lean work, stripped down to its bare essentials. The narrator, a Heathrow immigration officer called Ralph, stays within the bounds of one gender and a solitary lifetime, lived out in the prosaic second half of the 20th century. His childhood in the Fifties, and, in particular, the journey he recalls making on an ocean liner from England to Australia in 1959 with his mother and her US Navy lover, are far from ordinary, however. But as the novel sets off, leaving the pea- souper murk of Woolwich behind it, you would be forgiven for thinking that Beaven was bidding adieu to conspicuous complexity and heading for sparser, more conventionally ordered lands.

What seems straightforward proves to be accumulatively unsettling. Ralph's well-worn reminders about the unreliable nature of memory are played off against descriptions of life on board the deluxe Armorica that are almost Titanic-like in their confidence. This is a liner, we are told, that has been scrapped from the record books, whose existence has no other source of verification than the main character himself. And yet the ship and passengers are observed with the steely eye of an "albatross, riding empty air above the mainmast head, looking down". We only bump into the boy Ralph at odd moments, mostly when he crops up in the romance unfurling - much to the disapproval of the starchy couples on board - between Robert Kettle, a radio-telescopist going out to work at a "satellite tracking station", and Penny Kendrick, en route to join her husband in Adelaide.

This weird self-sidelining makes for a protracted puzzlement that initially threatens to scupper the reader's curiosity. There isn't quite enough spumy revelation to justify the detailing of bland events on board. It is only when Ralph's abuse has been articulated, many seas into the voyage, that we begin to appreciate Beaven's jigsaw stratagem. By this stage we have been surreptitiously reminded of the turbulent political waters through which the Armorica is moving. The atomic arms race is gathering pace; Australia has become the nuclear test-site for Britain; perhaps the Armorica has, hidden out of view, more than just a cargo of economic migrants dreaming of a better life down under.

"The ship is a famous microcosm, naturally; something of a well-tried metaphor," Ralph notes early on. Beaven knows the risks and takes them. He fuses two kinds of ugliness - that of the Bomb and that of the child whose innocence has been forcibly taken - in the "Leviathan" that hyper- imaginative Ralph sees, and makes a destructive pact with below deck. This both acknowledges the contrivances of fiction (Ralph is looking for structures that echo his trauma) and plausibly suggests that the consequences of the abused not challenging the abuser, whether domestic or governmental, are equally contaminating. That you can draw these kind of connections while enjoying Acts of Mutiny's page-turning conclusion suggests that it won't be long before Derek Beaven lands himself a sizeable following.