A tale of whirling balls

A castrato seeks his destiny in 18th-century London. Domino by Ross King Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 10
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Agreat deal of research and relish has gone into Domino, the first novel from a young Canadian academic called Ross King. In it, he fleshes out, wildly and deliciously, the Rabelaisian goings-on of London's finest at the end of the 18th century, as seen through the eyes of a young artist, George Cautley,

Cautley is sent to London, after a family tragedy,thrown onto the mercy of rich benefactors. One, the sexually ambiguous Lady Beauclair, sits for her portrait. As he paints her, she tells him the sorry tale of Tristano, one of the era's finest castrati.

So begins King's wider examination of appearance and reality. As he sketches - and, he idealistically hopes, "reveals" Lady Beauclair through drawing - she reveals more of Tristano's epic story. But what begins as an exercise in uncovering truth soon becomes, for both, an exercise in concealment. The relationship between truth and illusion is one of fiction's more hackneyed dynamics. King, however, manages to avoid cliche.

Cautley's belief in physiognomy means that characters are read by appearance before they say or do anything. The disparity that emerges between the images of people Cautley constructs, and the reality later uncovered, gives Domino a considerable degree of complexity.

The central figure, though he does not appear directly, is Tristano himself, the castrato who dazzled Europe 50 years before, but gave up fame and fortune after an on-stage tragedy and descended into penury. Cautley begins dangerously to identify with the singer, while King skilfully plays off the "unknowability" of Tristano's destiny against the indeterminate sexual allure of his castrato status. But Tristano is one factor Cautley and the others can never ascertain fully. As masked balls whirl and discrepancies in stories emerge, characters cry out for clarification.

Peter Ackroyd and Rose Tremain have both been here before, densely packaging history in tight whirls of fact and fiction. King's novel suffers only from faults familiar to both authors - an over-attention to period detail that can slow the story. Otherwise, King's depth and focus remain sound. The "bright illusions and firm faiths" that so frustrate Cautley the artist are stripped away and cleverly recast by his young creator.