Books: Paperbacks

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen, Arrow, pounds 6.99 293pp; Morecambe & Wise by Graham McCann, Fourth Estate pounds 7.99, 398pp; Threads of Time by Peter Brook, Methuen pounds 12.99, 241pp

IN AMERICA people will do almost anything for you: paint your toes, walk your dog, walk you, and, at the best schools, nit-pick your children's hair. Quindlen's latest novel introduces the people paid to find you a new house, a new job, a new name - even a new life.

A former columnist at The New York Times - the third female columnist in the paper's history - Quindlen's previous novel, One True Thing, chronicled a mother's dying and a daughter's return. In Black and Blue, her third, she tackles wife-battering: a subject made almost hackneyed by made- for-TV movies.

The novel's heroine is Fran, a 38-year-old nurse from Brooklyn with freckly skin and staying power. Married to New York cop Bobby Benedetto, because she fancied him; she stays because she wants a father for her son, and a roof over her head. Ten years on - and a broken nose and a necklace of bruises later - Fran and Bobby disappear, re-emerging with new identities and birth dates in a Florida apartment.

As a narrator, Fran is sympathetic and intelligent. Recounting the history of her married life, she paints herself not so much as a victim, as a prisoner of circumstance - though the sound of Bobby's late-night tread in the hall is enough to make putty of the strongest reader. The real victim is Fran's son, and Quindlen is at her best evoking the physical presence of the ten- year-old boy - his stalk-like neck bent over an electronic game as he wards off his mother's vigilance.

The novel's appeal lies in the practical detail of Fran's new life: Thanksgiving dinner at the local "Chirping Chicken," the misery factor of cheap curtains and coffee mornings in Florida's more soulless backyards.

No fully paid-up American novel can get away without a bit of cornball, and so when Fran gets to date her son's Little League Coach, it's not exactly a surprise; though, the novel's nightmarish ending creeps up from behind.

Emma Hagestadt

EVEN IF the pair's appeal eludes you, this subtle account is certainly worth reading. Morecambe was in the great tradition of Lancashire comics: "I took my name from the place I was born - Eric." Graham McCann does his best with Wise ("No straight man has ever been fully appreciated"), but others may feel that Ern was just plain lucky. Essentially a music-hall act buffed up for the television age, Morecambe and Wise were the last comics to unify the nation. Seen by 28 million at Christmas 1977, their routines (Ernie: "My auntie's got a Whistler." Eric: "Now there's a novelty!") seem antediluvian today.

IT WAS a mistake for the great director to commit his memoirs to paper. Sadly deficient in humour and modesty (his wife is "among the world's great beauties"), it is a classic of high-flown twaddle. Credulous about the dubious mystic Gurdjieff, Peter Brook's banal musings are presented as insights brought down from a high mountain. Of a bearded dwarf he meets in Kabul, he intones: "Here was a man accepting who he was, where he was, what he was. A dwarf placed in infinity, like us all." Offstage, the exotic magician's robe of this homegrown Prospero is revealed as plain flannel.

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