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The Innocence of the Devil by Nawal el Saadawi, trs Sherif Hetata, Methuen pounds 14.99. This powerful and poetic short novel, set in a crumbling mental hospital said once to have been a palace of the Pharaohs, concerns the lives of women under the repressive rule of men, and in particular two women who were once close childhood friends. One is now the head nurse of the hospital; the other is admitted for 'treatment' following a career of insubordination against patriarchy which includes the crime of writing. The intensely vivid and figurative prose and the constantly shifting narrative viewpoint, slipping in and out of fantasy and dream, create an almost hypnotic effect, but the technique is also bewildering and the persistent use of pronouns instead of characters' names adds to the confusion. This is not an easy book, but it is a fine and passionate one. Anita Mason

Closing the Book by Stevie Davies, Women's Press pounds 12.99. A virtual survivor's manual for anyone facing the death of an intimate; it neither falls into the trap of mawkishness nor pretends that caring is easy. More illuminating than wrenching, the novel never underestimates the power of rage to either victim or survivor. Bridie, the eminent founder of an Oxfam-like trust is fading from cancer while her lesbian lover Ruth - who has sacrificed husband and two daughters for this relationship - wonders if she will lose her own marbles. Tender vivid scenes at the hospice and more harrowing frantic ones at home get well-calculated relief as Ruth's militantly vegetarian daughter makes life hell for her father's new girlfriend. Davies squarely addresses the question: if death is such an everyday thing, then why, when it's our turn, does it come as such a bombshell?Maggie Traugott

Absolution by Olaf Olafsson, Phoenix House pounds 12.99. A bundle of papers found among the effects of a wealthy Icelandic businessman living in New York turns out to contain the confession to a crime committed 50 years earlier. By the time he has translated them, the man into whose possession the papers have come is writing in his own journal: 'His voice disturbs me . . . Please do not let him invade my mind.' Peter Peterson's confession is indeed disturbing, not only because of the inhumanity of the act at its centre, but also because of the mental landscape through which we travel to reach it. Peterson's mind is a place of annihilating bleakness. He despises his family, has no friends, and takes pleasure only in his wine cellar and the remote possibility of successful coition with his Cambodian housekeper. With dispassionate contempt he reviews the young man he once was: ordinary, trusting, shyly worshipping a girl he courted with cultural outings and chaste kisses, and discovered one night to be betraying him cruelly. Then he realised that the German occupation of Copenhagen offered him the perfect cover for revenge. His narrative moves from the present to circle again and again around the simple, irredeemable 'little crime'. That we are not told until the end of the book what he did makes for compulsive reading, and the spare, dry language concentrates suspense. The book is as cold and lucid as a quartz crystal. Anita Mason

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