Books: Meteorites and circuses

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The Independent Culture
Visible Worlds

by Marilyn Bowering Flamingo pounds 10.99

Marilyn Bowering's second novel, , is a tour de force, lavish in its scale, complication and information. The preface alone takes in arcane societies, human magnetism, Korea, Russia and death by lighting-strike during a football game. All becomes clear as Bowering unteases the epic story of three families over 30 years, across three continents and through two wars. With a fine balance of coolness and conviction, she pulls it off.

The narrator is Albrecht Storr, the son of German emigres living in Canada. His story is a web of catastrophe, politics and romance from the start. It is 1934, and while Albrecht and his friend Nate Bone spy on a neighbour's seance, Nate's baby sister is scalded and dies. The clairvoyant's customer is exposed as Nate's father's lover and we already know that the clairvoyant herself will become involved with Albrecht's father and that Albrecht will marry her daughter, Mary.

These families continue to love, betray, abandon and rescue one another through a chain of twists and coincidences that has them popping up like Zelig at key historical moments. Albrecht's twin, the inscrutable Gerhard, is sent back to Cologne to study music, is enlisted by the Nazis and ends up in a Soviet labour camp. Nate is subject to medical experiments as a POW in Japan while Mary is involved in the development of chemical weapons. Albrecht's account is interspersed with the story of Fika, the surviving member of the Soviet "First All Union Conference of Women" expedition to the North Pole. It is 1960, the height of the Cold War, and Fika heads for the West. Her Arctic world is as featureless as Albrecht's is crowded, measured in glimpses of sunlight, grains of sugar and pulsebeats. Little by little, her memories knit her, too, into his story.

is fashionably rich in research. We learn about ice, orienteering, germ-warfare, labour camps, meteorites and circuses. There are five epigraphs - from Marguerite Yourcenar, Plato, Alasdair Gray, Brian Appleyard and Oscar Wilde. Yet the book doesn't sink under all this weight. On the contrary, it is plainly written and fast-paced and has a certain crispness that suggests Bowering resisted indulging her themes beyond the part they had to play in her overall plan.

The fast-action plot has a subtle backdrop, raising questions about the flimsiness of identity in the midst of political, economic and social forces. Characters casually lose their name, parents, nationality and home. Location becomes a matter of a dateline or a sighting of the sun. Horror and guilt are remembered in whispers, secrets and dreams, like an atmosphere which everyone is forced to continue to breathe.

is written with such panache and is so much fun to read that it seems churlish to resist its more fantastic moments. It is a wonderful piece of storytelling.