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Bending genders and genres

Victoria Radin is disappointed by a decadent diversion; Adele by Mary Flanagan, Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99
Mary Flanagan has a studiously decadent side, a quirk that makes her fall in love with the smiles that smell of money, the good accent and the warning cruelties of a guy called Miles. Miles crops up in one of Flanagan's short stories and in a novel; she has written two books of each form.

But while this reader, at least, can't go the whole kilometre with Miles, I can follow Flanagan into all her other canyons of place and mind. Born in New Hampshire, but resident in Britain for her adult life, Flanagan writes equally well of small-town Catholic families in the state whose licence plate reads Live Free Or Die (and they're not talking intellectual freedom) and of the baffled odysseys of the youngish urban arty crowd, rootless and a bit cokey. Perhaps her best work is found in her first collection of short fiction, Bad Girls. Its unsparing story about an American child who is abused by her sister, and its fables of mostly British middle- class women who go dramatically mad - abducting the adolescent son of a best friend, attacking an Asian woman on a bus, or, after years of compliance, shooting a shitty lover - break the heart.

Flanagan is capable of such rare emotional intensity and precision that Adele, her third novel, reads as if it were written over an opaque frontispiece with an illustration of something important infuriatingly obscured. I had to read it twice to make sure that I hadn't gone blind. But no: what is meant as a lark, or a bold interrogation into the nature of sexuality through the artifice of a Gothic Romance, unexpectedly lacks Flanagan's habitual exhilaration and sureness.

There are two interwoven stories here. The contemporary tale concerns a trio of thirty- to fortyish cosmopolitans: a familiar Flanagan mix of American and British, but surprisingly dull. For thin, vaguely feminist reasons (the didactically political has never been on Flanagan's agenda), they band together in quest of the restitution of some body parts which they believe should be buried with their owner. These "artefacts", we learn tantalisingly slowly, are a mummified clitoris and a ditto penis or, as we first perceive it, a "brown speckled object". The trail to bury these bits, and perhaps make a documentary about the matter, leads to the Pyrenean town of their heroine's birth and to an adventure which might remind one of the true, and gripping, excesses of the Bad Girls if the trio and the writing weren't so unconvinced.

The other story, narrated in the first person to a vocative You, is by far the more compelling: a thriller in structure and a great tease. Its teller is an Englishwoman of 89 living in a nursing home in the same Pyrenean town. She recalls, in excited prose, her years with the titular heroine, whom her brother recruited her to look after. The Englishwoman is dull and unattractive; Adele is a wild child, "scandalously beautiful", who has been bought by the brother, a gynaecologist. As the time is the Thirties, genetic engineering and thus gynaecology are in the air - along with a lot of hot air pertaining to alchemy, hermaphroditism and satanic contracts, as well as plain prostitution, pimping, voyeurism and what seems more like smut than eroticism.

Horrible maimings are enacted by the gyne, though not quite how and to whom we thought. Breathless revelations of anatomy are delivered. Blanche's torrid tale, which swooningly endows Adele with the stereotypical attributes of the femme fatale while conjuring her as victim of the highest order, streaks past decadence into bathos.

Somewhere an opportunity has been lost for exploring not only the nature of sexual attraction (in a lesbian guise, we are mistakenly led to believe) but of that perhaps more interesting and certainly urgent subject, sexual identity. A perfectly good mummified penis has been binned. Flanagan's novels have flirted dangerously with romance but just about stayed on the high wire. Here she makes us a present of an unapologetic entertainment. But as with most works that have diversion as their central motive, Adele is greatly less diverting than Flanagan's other, paradoxically more exuberant, sexy and serious work.