Books: Hot rooms, cool boys and open secrets

With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore Viking pounds 16.99
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In Helen Dunmore's latest novel, a child, Anna, sits in a room that "is hot and high. The radiator hisses ... Dark, ornate, highly polished slabs of furniture lean over her, like cliffs she cannot climb." Dunmore is the mistress of domestic oppression, of the unspoken, unfathomable threats and fears inherent in the very environment that is supposed to protect and comfort us. Every detail in her writing can be a cocked weapon, hinting that something bad - and you're never sure what exactly - is about to happen on the next page: "Deep in the belly of the house a door opens, then closes. She knows exactly where he is ... The big mirror like a dark cup where you float to the top, surprising even yourself."

Dunmore is one of this country's most accomplished literary talents. Understated, careful and polished, her novels provide voyeuristic glimpses into lives that are complicated - often sexually - by entrapment, expectation and impulse. Like watching a tightrope-walker, it all looks effortless and graceful and spellbinding, as long as she never puts a foot wrong.

Sadly, she occasionally does. With Your Crooked Heart is the story of two brothers, Paul and Johnnie, and a woman, Louise. Paul and Louise were married but by the time the novel starts, they are divorced, Paul has remarried and Louise has lost herself in alcoholism. They are still united, though, by their constant concern over Johnnie, the wheeling, dealing younger brother whom the successful Paul tried to "save" from their working- class background. Their daughter, Anna, meanwhile, is torn between the three of them.

The problem is that the novel begins at a rather strange point, where nothing much is going to happen beyond it. Louise and Paul are already divorced; Johnnie is already feckless and absent; and Anna is already a sensitive little girl. The nub of the story is in the past, which means that the larger part of the narrative is made up of people sitting about, staring into space and reflecting on the past. Stranger still is Dunmore's decision to tell us in the opening two chapters that Johnnie is in fact Anna's father. I cannot help feeling that the novel would have worked so much better had Dunmore kept this secret from us, hinting at it but always pulling back until the very end. As it is, the knowledge hangs heavy on the reader throughout the book.

Johnnie is, I think, meant to be mysterious and compulsively attractive, which would go some way to explaining Louise and Paul's addiction to helping and excusing him. But the multiple narrators work against Dunmore here, where Johnnie's voice is whining, underdeveloped and hollow. Instead of supporting Louise's theory that "Johnnie can always be the flesh of other people's dreams. He shines back at them, a bright reflection of what they most want", he appears as a slightly tedious, immature wideboy. Involved in some nebulous, generic form of drug dealing, his talk is of second- hand car dealers called "Charlie" who are "all right". He forms, then, a kind of absent centre.

Dunmore has a tendency to let her writing get waterlogged by gloom and melodrama, tipping it over into portentousness. "It made me teel as if I was standing by the hold in an aeroplane's belly, waiting to jump. But I don't jump. I don't do any of it." At the end of a chapter about Johnnie comes the rather leaden "When you see a cat play, if you can call it play, you thank God it's the size it is." This kind of slippage is fatal in any novel that is concerned with building up the tension: once you've lost the reader's belief, you've lost their attention.

When Dunmore's writing is at its best, it can be like rockclimbing with an experienced tutor, with her inserting into the text clever little footholds which you can choose to take or not. Paul's office, she tell us, "looks like the home office of a successful businessman, except that the resemblance is too accurate. It leaves you wanting to open drawers and pull out books in case the shelves are false." But too often here she goes too far, underestimating her reader, telling them things they already know or could have worked out for themselves, selling her story short: "Every time [Paul] loaded a roller with paint," we are told as he decorates the flat he bought as a gift for Johnnie, "his mother's flat in Grays grew fainter ... Everything had gone, all the dirt and crap and disappointment."

I am such a fan of her work that I looked desperately for things I liked about this book. But it lacks her usual potency, verve and restraint. Maybe this time she just looked down from her high wire and momentarily lost her poise - I do feel sure, however, that she'll get it back.