BOOKS: PAPERBACKS REVIEW

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Dream Children

by A N Wilson

Abacus pounds 6.99

As a prize-winning novelist and former literary editor of the Evening Standard and the Spectator, A N Wilson holds a prominent position in the English literary scene. As a columnist, he likes to provoke liberal do-gooders with his unorthodox views on subjects like child abuse. ("Worse things have happened at sea" seems to be his line.) But he also enjoys highlighting the hypocrisy of the tabloid press in its insistence on sexualising every element of society at the same time as maintaining a hysterical, and unhelpful, stance on the protection of children. His latest novel fictionalises the volatile issues surrounding paedophilia with a philosophical clarity that has not been seen since Iris Murdoch was in her prime. Which means that , at times, reads like a contemporary reworking of the Socratic forum.

The subject in question is: now that marriage is no longer a legal or social necessity, and homophobia, rather than homosexuality, is outlawed, surely it is time to break the last taboo, which, for Wilson's purposes, is sex with children. So Oliver Gold, distinguished moral philosopher and guru to a generation of students, is conducting a secret affair with eight-year-old Bobs under the roof of her grandmother, an insufferably pretentious and unsuccessful literary-salon hostess. Also harboured under her roof are Bobs's mother, Michal (more interested, in her capacity as a social worker, in underprivileged kids than in her own daughter) and her lesbian lover, Cuffe - a cold academic and disciple of Gold. All the women are infatuated with the sole man of their unconventional household. When he suddenly announces his engagement, the idyllic union dissolves, and a dangerous sexual chemistry is set alight. The story is riveting, the prose insouciantly elegant, and, even though the female protagonists have little life outside their schematic function, Wilson provides just enough flesh to ballast their outrageous antics. Of all the characters, we get closest to Gold as he struggles to equate personal ethics with public morality. Wilson's evenhanded approach to the horror of what is going on in Gold's mind chills the blood whilst challenging our assumptions. Meanwhile Bobs is shown as a consensual partner in their affair, her astonishing aplomb and mental acuity keeping her afloat until the novel's shockingly good ending. Wilson's open-ended finale is so mesmerising in its implications as to put an immediate stop to obfuscating, guilt-laden handwringing.

Turn Again Livingstone

by John Carvel

Profile pounds 6.99

Carvel has followed London's would-be mayor throughout all the ups and downs of his extraordinary career. This entertaining and informative biography covers the infant (his mother felt he was such an ugly baby that "she used to put the blankets over his head and tell people not to disturb him"), the boy, the leader of the GLC, the pariah of the "wilderness years", the newts, the toads and the thorn in Tony Blair's side. Ken Livingstone is nothing if not likeable: he once came second in the BBC's man of the year poll; on the other hand, he was heralded by the Sun as "the most odious man in Britain" (he has a habit of making friends with IRA terrorists and their mothers). Carvel wants us to make up our own minds on his subject's suitability for the post of Mayor of London, but includes Livingstone's manifesto anyway, just in case we can't.

Altar Ego

by Kathy Lette

Picador pounds 5.99

"Query: Would it be a serious breach of etiquette to run out on my own wedding?" This is Lette's preferred style of punchline: set up the reader for a wimpish, Bridget-Jones style denoument, then smack us in the mouth with a wisecrack that undermines the whole tradition. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets tiresome. Why can't Becky Steele (not as sharp as Thackeray's post-feminist icon) commit to her Knight in Shining Armour? Why does she suffer from "IBS (Irritable Boyfriend Syndrome)", and hanker after Mr Wrong and his "bionic buns"? Why does Lette's every witticism have to be signposted with uppercase acronyms? Enough jibes on my part, already. Becky dumps her fiance and finds true love whilst her creator lets rip her boisterous brand of social comedy.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans

by Jean Clair

Thames & Hudson pounds 24.95

The 20th century's master of photography is an artist concerned with the passing of time and its ravages on our terrain. In this collection of photographs which span the late 1920s to early 1990s, he imposes this artistic vision on seemingly diverse landscapes (the snow- covered slopes of the Rhine, a barren Spanish mesa) as though their individual geographical features had been composed by a painter teasing out their connections. For Cartier-Bresson, the connection is how the land has been worked, and how it has accommodated humanity since pre-industrial times. The Europeans recorded here inhabit both city and countryside - whether they are Polish priests observing their rituals or Greek washerwomen (the monolithic, almost mythological figures, suspended in ancient tasks), they are, again, united by the artist's vision, and caught in the business of daily life. Jean Clair is Director of the Musee Picasso in Paris, and provides a suitably scholarly introduction.

Fair Exchange

by Lynne Reid Banks

Piatkus pounds 6.99

It is 12 years since the author of The L-Shaped Room wrote an adult novel (her children's novels continue to be a great success), but she has not lost her appetite for taking on the big issues. Thatcherism, apartheid, abortion, fox-hunting, you name it, she tackles it. But she always manages to take her readers by surprise, and deflate her characters' presumptions about themselves and the world in which they take such an active interest. She can also create characters whose humour is not an added extra but an essential ingredient of their psychological make-up. How refreshing.

Death and Fame: Poems 1993-1997

by Allen Ginsberg

Penguin pounds 7.99

When the Beat poet of Howl fame and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (the first accredited Buddhist college in the western world) discovered he was dying, he decided to chronicle the last few months of his life in his own distinctive style. Playful and reductive to the last, he works witty, melodic word-patterns out of his decaying body. His death comes as a delightful release from inanity, and that delight is displayed with scatological fervour. But he doesn't glamourise his condition. Apart from celebrating incontinence with "Bowel Song", he finds a sparseness that is truly moving: "No more right & wrong/yes it's gone gone gone/ gone gone away ..."

LP

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