Books: Up the Amazon with a surfeit of symbols

Carol Birch loses her way in a dense jungle of ideas; The Nudist Colony by Sarah May Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 326pp
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The Independent Culture
SARAH MAY'S debut novel has all the hallmarks of talent without discipline; the tyro's insistence on cramming everything in. There are too many characters, too many ideas, too much plot. Somewhere, I began to get a feel for the shape of the story, but lost it again in the tangle. There are good things in this mess, if only they were allowed to get their heads above the thickets and breathe.

The book plunges straight into the parallel moral universe of big-time gangsters. A sense of unreality is emphasised by the fact that everyone has an odd name and no one ever speaks without saying something deeply meaningful. Aesop, aged 14, lives with his elder brother on a desperate council estate. One night he is knocked over by the chauffeur-driven car of Ludwig, a lonely old gangster whose face has been disfigured by a skin disease called the "borealis". Ludwig, who has contracted this on an exploitative criminal project in the Brazilian rainforest, takes Aesop under his wing to groom him for gangsterdom.

Numerous sub-plots branch out. Ludwig is being treated by Dr Achilles, a saintly woman who is searching for a cure for the disease. She is being stalked by an infatuated former colleague. Another plot involves Aesop's brother's relationship with his beautiful dancer-singer girlfriend. Whole rafts of people are introduced, given a few pages and dropped. Others are left dangling, until a tortured plot deposits them conveniently in the last few pages. We travel to the Amazon, to a Young Offender's Institution near Lancaster, ending up in a tropical palm-house housing butterflies with three-foot wing spans. Outside, anarchists rampage, gospel choirs sing, all is chaos.

Sarah May writes very good prose. Her descriptive skills are excellent and she has a wonderfully observant eye for detail. The dialogues, though, are ponderous. Everyone seems to talk in an unconvincingly over-intimate way. Sometimes this reads like a bad American soap. There are too many symbols. The "borealis" has come out of the rainforest to wreak revenge for human excesses. Ludwig's face is a symbol of alienation. Aesop is the possibility of redemption.

This is the work of a writer who feels deeply and desperately wants to say something. I think the key is to be found in a single scene, when Ludwig takes the unsuspecting Aesop along to witness the murder of a young woman who knows too much. She is staying in her grandmother's council flat. The old lady is feeding the budgie; the girl paints her toenails. "The girl looked up at Ludwig and she couldn't think and didn't know what to do because the varnish was still wet and she had nowhere to put the pot down." Ludwig shoots them.

Simple and devastating, this is a beautifully written scene. Everything that is crucial to the book is in it: the relationship between corruption and innocence, the question of love in such a context, moral choice. For me, this is the one abiding memory of this tense, hard, yet peculiarly sentimental read.