BOOKS / In brief

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I'm No Truck by Annie Saumont, Marion Boyars pounds 13.95. The title story is about a mentally disturbed man with the face of an angel who may not think he's a truck but certainly behaves like one. Whether Saumont is describing a child's grief at his grandparents' death, a concentration camp survivor destroyed by guilt, or a thief's son obsessed by honesty who nags his own son so much he turns to crime, her stories are fresh and compelling. She excels in brevity, in the cool, unsparing description of suffering, in black humour. Her sentences are colloquial, often lacking main verbs: she can pack a tremendous punch - as in her description of lovers - by simply calling something 'Your' or 'My.' It's like watching card tricks cleverly performed: the narrative elements are shuffled, spread out this way and that. The outcome may be a surprise, but you know it's just right. Leslie Wilson

Smith by Geoff Hill, Blackstaff pounds 5.95. Smith is an interior designer whose wife has hanged herself. His grief does not prevent him bedding the spouses of a lawyer and an engineer, and what, in other hands, might have been just another triangular trauma turns out to be a funny and moving story of salvation. Hill has a voice all his own - both lyrical and lunatic - which casts the world in a new light. Few first novels achieve as much. Mark Sanderson

The Grisly Wife by Rodney Hall, Faber pounds 14.99. Catherine Byrne marries a prophet because he can fly, even though she's a parson's daughter and he a tanner. To escape the social embarrassment he causes her, she persuades him to emigrate to Australia with a group of pious women, all of whom are virgins. The prophet conserves his wife's virginity, too, but she gets pregnant none the less. They all believe it's a miracle. Catherine finds lies more interesting than truth and her breathless first-person narrative is quintessentially unreliable: this instability extends to the physical world which Hall describes in constant, confusing motion. But though Catherine and her experiences and feelings are cleverly rendered, the prophet, the other women, even the miraculous boy himself remain dim figures at the edge of Catherine's story. This gives the novel a frustrating monotony which detracts from its excellent parts. Leslie Wilson

Swimming the Channel by Jill Neville, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. Jill Neville's new novel, the first in nine years, describes four women at different times in their lives, all linked by the same adulterous affair. We meet Beth in 1969, embroiled in commonplace adultery with Paul, a young diplomat. The novel moves to Paris, five years on, to Tess who works as babysitter for the now-married Paul and his vapid wife Alison. There is then a long interlude with Aurora, Tess's bohemian mother and finally in 1993 Tess re-visits the widowed Alison. But beyond the narrative cohesion of these sequences, Neville fails to evoke an outer world or to provide any social resonance. There is a strong portrayal of the elderly Aurora, brittle, vain, still sexually rapacious, which stands apart from the rest as a self-contained story. Much of the writing is clumsy and nervous. The vocabulary often seems oddly dated and careless: 'good egg' and 'egging him on' appear in the course of a page. The imagery can be stunningly maladroit - Paul's eyes are described as 'shining with love and spermatozoa'. The novel is both international and parochial, melodramatic and suburban - pleasant enough to read but ephemeral, with characters too frail and pallid to sustain the timeless themes of love and anguish, betrayal and loss. Elizabeth Young

Eleanor by Julian Fane, Constable pounds 14.99. Eleanor is a love- child, 'made for love', but one who, in spite of all her efforts, never finds it. The best bit of this frightfully civilised novel details our heroine's upbringing by two 'Auntys' in Edwardian Willesden. Eleanor blossoms into a beautiful pianist and thereafter her life turns into a comedy of horrors as she takes up with a string of unsuitable and unpleasant men. Julian Fane has a fine eye for the nuances of class and clearly adores his charming creation, but his reluctance to let rip muffles the impact of the tragedy. It's like Anita Brookner without the wit. Mark Sanderson

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