Books: Just like us, only more so

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The Independent Culture
Sheer Blue Bliss

by Lesley Glaister Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

Happiness is the prize for late 20th-century man - be it in the form of artistic fulfilment, absolute fame, the ultimate orgasm. Forget duty: that's been long abandoned, and celestial heaven is too long a wait.

Patrick Mount was a man of his time: an eccentric botanist for whom finding paradise on earth was the reason for living. Until he disappeared in the 1960s, he believed he had found the perfect way to bliss through his elixirs, potent herby concoctions that would enable him to experience the seven stages of perfect joy. But now all that is left of Patrick is his picture, about to be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery, years after it was painted by his portraitist and lover, Charlotte Benson. She meanwhile has long since abandoned society for windswept solitude by the sea in Norfolk.

For Tony, though, Patrick is as alive today as he is. His obsession with the story of Mount and his elixirs has dominated his entire life and being. The opening of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition is the moment when Tony realises that his quest for bliss can be attained.

As soon as we encounter Tony, we are beset by a sense of dark dread. Glaister paces the tension acutely through the pages of this disturbing novel, tempting us to read on to the inevitable, terrible denouement.

Glaister's eighth novel might be dubbed a story of the search for total bliss, but this is sheer gothic horror - and all the more satisfying for it. Like many of her earlier works, she convincingly portrays the demons behind what at first glance seems so commonplace, so mundane. The characteristic Glaister technique of juxtaposing the lives of two very different characters - Tony and Constance - enables her to craft a fine dissection of what they have in common - isolation, secrets and terrors. It is all the more frightening when their very abnormality seems normal in the hands of Glaister, for she shows them to be just like us, only more so.

Glaister tackles tough, complex issues with panache. Her exposition of Tony's psychosis and his descent into violence seem quite natural, while the story of Constance's encounter with Patrick, told through the memories of an old woman, builds up through the course of the novel to form a portrait of a relationship both abusive and celebratory, masochistic yet empowering.

There are disappointments too. Glaister's depiction of a journalist suggests she knows nothing of that world and the kind of personality who succeeds in it, while her explanation of Patrick's whereabouts is similarly unconvincing. But she is developing into an extremely talented creator of the written equivalent of the film noir, with a marked ability to put her finger on our fears. This is psychosis in suburbia, and suspense by the sea, at its best.