Books: Subterranean homesick blues

Michael Arditti descends into the lower depths and enjoys a season in the urban inferno: Underground by Tobias Hill Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, 245pp
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THE UNDERGROUND system exercises much the same power over the contemporary imagination that coal mines did in the past. It is at once a symbol of warmth - with its womb-like platforms and its chirpy Cockneys singing through the Blitz - and of vulnerability, with its maze-like tunnels and potential for disasters such as the King's Cross fire. It provides the most environmentally friendly means of transport while, at the same time, constituting a kind of hell.

Last year, Geoff Ryman's novel 253 created a biting social comedy from the interconnectedness of passengers on a Bakerloo line train. Now, Tobias Hill explores the darker side of a network in which "even ordinary people are different. Less social, more isolated". Hill is less concerned with passengers than with workers, and with one in particular: Ariel Casimir, a taciturn Pole who is assistant supervisor at Camden Town. Casimir's orderly existence is torn apart when two young women are deliberately pushed onto the tracks. He suspects he knows the murderer's identity.

Hill splits his narrative between a third-person account of present-day London and Casimir's first-person account of his childhood in provincial Poland amid food-shortages, poverty and unemployment. He describes the scorn that greets his friendship with a young Jewish girl and the horror of discovering his father's involvement in the country's anti-Semitic past. His disgust is increased when he learns the truth about his black- market activities and the cargo he collects on his trips to Soviet Astrakhan. This leads him to leave first home and then country, although he still sends the bulk of his wages back to a friend.

The Polish sections contain the book's most potent writing. Hill subtly sketches the alien country through its different road-safety laws, food and sweets. Casimir's childhood perceptions are vividly captured through smells: Susicka, the florist smelling "like two-days-old milk", or Uncle Jan, the border-guard, who "smells hot and sour, like zur soup". The central metaphor is developed through incidents of Casimir's falling and descent: being trapped beneath a sheet of ice; plunging down a mine-shaft.

It is because of Casimir's affinity with the lower depths, both inside and outside himself, that he opts to work on the Underground when he arrives in England. Hill powerfully conveys the excitement and the dangers of the job. He expertly evokes subterranean London, sharing Stephen Poliakoff's fascination with disused stations. He also provides a satisfying reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

Where he is less successful is in the attempt to squeeze the material into a conventional thriller format. The Northern Line is nightmarish enough without the addition of murders. The climactic chase along the track belongs to the glossy world of Luc Besson's Subway rather than to Underground's muted milieu. It is understandable that Hill should wish to give his narrative tension, but he should trust his own descriptive writing to fire the imagination, without the need for a somewhat hackneyed plot.