BOOK REIVEW / Mellow tunes and firing squads: 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' - LOuis de Bernieres: Secker & Warburg, 15.99

LOUIS DE Bernieres' Latin- American trilogy of novels was a trail-blazing flare that took his name into the Granta pack of the Best of Young British Novelists of 1993. But what might be missed, blanked out by the dazzle, is that all three books - The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (which he thinks is his best book, though now it's eclipsed), Senor Vivo & The Coca Lord, and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman - are, in effect, a single stretch-limo novel, all ingenious versions, highly polished and purring, of each other.

The same stream of seduction weaves through his latest, and finest novel, but this one avoids the cabaret of hocus-pocus effects and fabulist portents. Great while it lasted, that vein is now mined. But de Bernieres is still deploying the same audacious imagination. He presents reality's self-distortions through a satirical perspective that exposes corruption and megalomania.

In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a fantastic novel set in wartime Cephallonia, this theme is signalled early. Addressing a bunch of artists, the Duce proclaims: 'Never forget; if the Armed Forces are the balls of Fascism, and I am its brains, you are its imagination.'

Meanwhile Fascism's spherical bits are doing their duty, trundling right across Cephallonia. It is spring 1941, and in the midst of this quiet, insidious invasion (by strutting midgets, some even 'smaller than their rifles'), one diminutive Italian 'with cockerel feathers nodding in his helmet' stands out from the pack. He is Antonio Corelli, musician manque and reluctant soldier, who is billeted with Dr Iannis, the paterfamilias of a small village, and his beautiful teenage daughter. On his arrival their home becomes the emotional heartland of the book, and its true beginning.

Too much that precedes these events is superfluous, padded prose, as when Pelagia is newly betrothed to Mandras, an Adonis- like fisherman, and cannot sleep for carnal stirrings: 'A gibbous moon slid filaments of eerie silver light through the slats of the shutters, and this conspired with the energetic carpentry of the crickets to keep her lying on her back with her eyes wide open. She had never felt more awake.' The reader may feel less rivetted.

But what ensues, though gnarled and knotted, is never wooden. Corelli's presence creates its own energetic trajectory, as he turns his men into a football- playing gang and an operatic choir; and turns armed occupation into a series of slapstick manoeuvres with the assistance of his sidekick Corporal Guercio, a closet homosexual whose valour is matched by his love for the crazy captain.

This potent yearning is part of the novel's emotional undertow, beautifully balanced by de Bernieres against the accruing energy of dramatic public events and impending disasters. The grand sweep of history merges seamlessly with intimate moments and tiny rituals - a rose laid on a grave, the composition of a letter - and yields both the sap of real life and the tremor of tragedy in the guise of Nazi atrocities.

Against this turbulence the novel's central love affair undresses and rehearses itself before us as Corelli - dispensing wit, attentive glances and mellow tunes - seductively strums Pelagia's heart, until violence ruptures the shaky peace.

De Bernieres rakes the landscape, mercilessly delineating horror as the islanders are caught in the Nazi massacre of their erstwhile Italian allies. The gamut of hope runs from bleak to black. Decency shrivels. Amid sparks of sacrifice or courage, soldiers and innocents are mown down, die lingering deaths or skulk like animals, chancing starvation in their bolt holes. Corelli, facing death by firing squad (a brilliantly written scene, shot through with withering wit) embraces Guercio with a fanfare of farewell: 'Come. Let us go together to paradise.'

The narrative pace intensifies, spurred by a storyline chopped, sliced, diced and served in a series of intimate voices and jump-cut scenes. Yet, despite the careering momentum, de Bernieres galvanises its energy, never allowing it, as he does at times in his Latin American trilogy, to dissipate. He keeps tragedy and comedy on a tight authorial leash, and does not risk a sentimental drop, or a slide into melodrama or farce.

The post-war decades are tracked through Pelagia's lonely, disappointed life towards an impressive climax. The end of the novel is both dizzying and sobering. In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres has written a book of the stature of Catch 22.