Books: Serial villain seeks pen friend

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PRESIDENT Mandela celebrates Freedom Day (the first anniversary of South Africa's first free elections) with the amnesty of thousands of political prisoners. In the Apartheid conditions of the day a scant five years ago, Sher's fictitious lawyer invokes Amnesty International to reprieve a violent criminal from hanging. Cheap Lives, set at the time immediately preceding Mandela's release from Robben Island, life is negligible against the omnipresent possibility of sudden and arbitrary death.

Antony Sher's third novel is as rooted in his home country as the production of Titus Andronicus he is about to bring from Johannesburg to Britain. In both he contemporises questions of race and sexuality, the nature of patriotic and family (or tribal) loyalties, and laces them with lashings of gore; his plot, in Cheap Lives, has the potential for both intimacy and tragedy.

A condemned serial killer enters into a correspondence with the one victim who got away, and the letters between the two move across their own life situations (the murderer, a poor Coloured bisexual; the victim, a privileged white homosexual), compulsively returning to the circumstances of their one sadomasochistic encounter. Just as the perpetrators of violence tend to protest that they were provoked to their actions, so the murderer, Yusuf, feels aggrieved when Adrian's evidence "victimises" him by leading to his arrest.

Adrian, a nature- and literature- loving tourist guide, is at his best when he is pursuing these two enthusiasms. The veldt and the oceans, even the tourists and their perverse and petty obsessions - their journeying aptly seen as "a kind of second childhood" - are richly observed. The descriptions are the best parts of the novel, perhaps because this is where love - of the land, of its red soil and its beautiful and vicious creatures - enters in.

But the author feels no such warmth for his drifting characters. The sense of what's common and eternal to us all, the ease with which people can fall into the role of either victim or perpetrator, the way marginalised lives are rendered "cheap", is belied by this fundamental lack of sympathy. By not caring too much for the particular, we cannot care further about the human condition.

Detachment at times plunges perilously close to stereotyping. Apartheid is still too recent for us to feel comfortable about a white writer evoking a villain whose skin is "bright shitbrown"; whose features are simian, "just nostrils" and "muzzle"; and whose brain is distinctly Neanderthal. Nor can we feel easy about a divine boy hero with golden hair and a surfer's body. To divide the principal protagonists categorically between unruly and instinctual animal and disciplined, reflective and adorable blond "angel" is to enter dangerous terrain.

Crucially, it is the "dangerous words" that both tempt then desert Sher. The menacing tension that should have come through the latter days of the Apartheid regime, when strikes and marches, carjacks and abductions, lootings and burnings were rife on the streets, misses its impact. Worse still, the necessary tension between two characters that have nothing to bind them but a freakish meeting, fails to compel, and the critical revelation of Adrian's motives for trying to prolong that encounter falls as flat as, well, the suburban psychologisms that gave rise to them.