BOOK REVIEW / Blood brothers

THE ANATOMY LESSON John David Morley Abacus £8.99

It takes a while to warm to the clever-pants, conversational style of John David Morley's latest book, which carpets the narrative with wall-to-wall spacefillers like "I guess" and "kind of". The young male narrator, Kiddo, rambles along in a casual, sub-Catcher in the Rye tone. Set in Amsterdam, the novel's incidental furnishing consists of a seedy scattering of drugs and drop-outs. But behind all Kiddo's cool posturing lies a story on the good old subject of families.

Golden boy elder brother with top grades, Morton, is envied by younger brother, Kiddo, who skips school to shoot up, trying to get clear of Morton's shadow. Despite their differences they are close, even sharing a girlfriend. Then the elder brother gets cancer and dies, and gradually all Kiddo's certainties about their relationship begin to come apart.

Family roles turn out not to be as they appeared: traditionally, Kiddo was favoured by the mother and Morton by the father. However, each secretly longed for the approval of the other parent, madly jealous of the rival sibling. This is a book about how you can spend years living with someone without knowing the most fundamental things about them, or about how they perceive you.

The central scene, which illustrates Kiddo's struggle to deal with this problem, is a bizarre ritual of exploration. Fascinated by Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Morton has left his body to science. But there is a condition: anyone who wants to witness the dissection must be allowed to do so.

It is a shocking narrative twist, but undeniably intriguing, when Kiddo, despite misgivings, is unable to resist this opportunity to poke around inside his enigmatic brother. The scene is the book's high-point of sustained tension, with a vivid, almost cinematic impact. Morley brings the camera far too close for comfort, switching focus between the cool precision butchering on the table and the young brother's racing emotions. Kiddo slides in and out of subjectivity - one moment he is simply looking at a corpse on a slab, the next the pathologist pulls out the tongue and it is irrefutably, horribly, that of his brother.

There are moments when the narrative machinery creaks and grinds in the effort to engineer a denouement, and the scenes of Kiddo's low-life stunts tend to lack both pace and purpose. But underneath all this, John David Morley gradually reveals the reciprocal envy and guilt that lie undetected at the heart so many families. He stares right in at some of a child's most unthinkable fears - what if my mother didn't love me? what if my big brother wanted to kill me? - and watches how they twist and warp people as they grow up.

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