Books: The missing links in a family

The Last Life by Claire Messud Picador pounds 12.99
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Claire Messud is a "difficult" novelist, for all her seductive, shimmering prose. And the things she chooses to write about can't be condensed into snappy sound-bites that sparkle with romance and cool career options. An emotional terrain she chooses to explore is fraught with terrible moral dilemmas that have everything to do with love, loyalty and identity, and nothing to do with glib romantic comedies and post-post-modern knowingness. Her second novel is a careful examination of secrets, lies and the truth.

Sagesse LaBasse, Messud's narrator, is asking the questions from her New York haven, "an ill-lit huddle of books and objects", and heartbreaking ones they are too, for they focus on her family and the way things went wrong for them. Her grandparents, the LaBasses, were French- Algerian Catholics who abandoned their homeland in the political upheaval of the 1960s, "choosing the suitcase over the coffin", and returned to France to set up the beautiful hotel Belle Vue on the shores of the Mediterranean. Their hearts were haunted by a visionary Algeria, "an imaginary city, a paradise conjured of words and partial recollection, a place that never on the map existed." It is a flawed vision, a narrow squeezing of perspective which refuses to acknowledge that their ancestors landed on a "blood-soaked soil and nothing could undo that beginning". Their family stories are similarly short-sighted - a kind of glamorous propaganda designed to shore up the family's respectable reputation. Great Aunt Estelle, "tall, slender and expensive, throat laced with emeralds", has been censored, uncouth cousin Serge sent packing with a condescending gesture, and Hamed, her grandfather's illegitimate son by a Muslim woman, is unacknowledged, as is so much else in the LaBasse family.

With the arrival of Hamed as a political refugee in America, Sagesse takes on the task of re-acknowledging - as well as reconciling her feelings for her brother Etienne by telling the missing story, confronting the dilemmas that link them.

Sagesse's brother Etienne was deprived of oxygen at birth and suffered irreparable brain damage. Her mother, "her shoulder blades like spiny wings, quivering, preparing for flight", is trapped in a loveless marriage with Alex, a manic depressive. The disintegration of the family begins on a summer's night when grandfather LaBasse fires a gun at Sagesse's friends as they take an illicit dip in the hotel swimming pool. The process is completed a couple of years later when a second shot is fired - her father's suicide. It is these bullet holes that let the questions seep in, revealing that the world isn't steady, but recklessly precarious. And if that is the case, is life worth living at all?

And what about Etienne? If your brother is born starved of oxygen, unable to walk, unable to talk, does he have an identity, a soul of his own? Is he just an empty cipher, there to be filled with someone else's hopes and dreams? Is he full of "silent wisdom", more vast and unknowable than you can ever imagine? He is, to Sagesse, "a sack, a pod, a thief, myself, sagacity, bridge over life's terrible isolation, and its most hideous emblem". And she says: "I could not live and be myself with my brother. But when I die I want to be buried beside Etienne."

The debate continues. If your granddad shoots at a group of your friends, do you abandon him and his unpleasant theories on French Algeria ("an earthly city where people and races knew their place") or do you accept the ties of blood - "He was my grandfather and always would be" - and feel "a terrible pity to him that was love"? If your dad kills himself, is the future forever marked by his past; is your character, your silent, concealing personality just constructed from faulty family stories?

For all its sombreness of theme, the mysteries of identity, the notion of free will and the dilemma of original sin, The Last Life is a joy to read. Messud's prose is lush, incantatory: "the day lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glaucous dusk." Her observations are funnily astute, brimming with wit and imagination. Messud's exploration of these demanding, challenging ideas is as elegant and precise as geometry.