BOOK REVIEW / Cousin Aubrey's secret lives: In the Tennessee Country - Peter Taylor: Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99: D J Taylor on an absorbing tale from Tennessee

UNLIKE their British counterparts, who are often considered parochial, American regional novelists are regularly acclaimed for using tiny locales to illuminate grand truths. Peter Taylor, whose imagination has, in the course of a long literary career, scarcely left the boundaries of a single US state, offers a fine example of this tendency. In The Tennessee Country - an expanded version of the story 'Cousin Aubrey' which appeared in his last collection, The Oracle At Stoneleigh Court - is the quintessence of his oblique, discriminating and increasingly fabulous vision of the Southern American past.

The novel is narrated by an elderly art historian named Nathan Longfort, and it begins with his childhood memory of a legendary train-ride in which the body of his senator grandfather is brought back from Washington to his home state. Punctuated by all manner of incidental setbacks and hold-ups, the journey is also remarkable for the presence of a mysterious relative, the illegitimate son of the senator's brother, Cousin Aubrey, who is held in some contempt by the other members of the family, but redeems himself slightly by his prompt attentions to Nathan's mother during a fainting fit, and then, fetched up in Knoxville for the internment, caps his performance by vanishing into thin air.

In choosing to disappear in this way, Cousin Aubrey immediately becomes part of a Tennessee tradition: the state, Nathan assures us, is full of stories of men who 'went away', some never to return, others to be rediscovered in bizarre cirumstances decades later. Like them, Aubrey's absence becomes a source of enduring mystery and contemplation, hanging over Nathan's childhood and, by the onset of his mature years, reaching maniacal proportions. Obsessed by his cousin, he affects to see him at family funerals, transforms him into a titanic mythical figure, and devotes much of his adult life to tracking him down: 'The simple knowledge of what his ultimate fate was became an end in itself.'

Cousin Aubrey's exact symbolic properties hang out of reach for a time while some more family history gets recounted. Nathan's original aim of becoming a painter is diverted on to the more lucrative, if faintly disappointing, path of art history. His widowed mother, with whom he conducts an odd, intense relationship, seems similarly unfulfilled and soothes her frustrations by declaiming fusty dramatic monologues at family parties, much to her son's embarrassment. Meanwhile, a sheaf of evidence, painstaking assembled through the succeeding years, allows for Aubrey's complete reinvention as an elegant, patrician figure, conspicuously at large in the salons of Europe and elsewhere. This picture is given an extra twist by old Mrs Longfort's revelation, made shortly before her death, that she and Aubrey had a brief, juvenile love affair.

Finally Nathan's son Braxton discovers the elderly Aubrey by chance in Washington. Here something of Taylor's design begins to reveal itself. Of all the members of the family, Braxton has been the least indulgent of his father's painstaking researches into 'some such banal family affairs'. Equally significant, perhaps, is Braxton's status as a bona fide artist. Unlike his father he really can paint. There is a further irony in Aubrey's reaction to being discovered . Insolvent and hospitalised, he is willing enough to unearth family history with Nathan, but chooses marriage to an elderly admirer in preference to financial help. Braxton, meanwhile, quits town, leaving Nathan and his wife to ponder the lessons of history: 'no matter how far away Brax went or whether our separation was quantitative or qualitative, we should not try to stop him'.

Nathan is a reserved, impenetrable figure, a touch Pooterish in his account of Braxton's Left Bank affectations ('it is really quite striking the way he gets himself up'), and occasionally revealing the fractures of his childhood. Elsewhere, a hint of the numinous, always observable in Taylor's later work, becomes even more sharply apparent. Nathan regards Aubrey as resembling 'some ghost from an earlier generation'. The latter's funeral appearances are those of a spectral revenant, uncorroborated by onlookers. Travelling to Ohio to be interviewed for his final academic post and arriving at a local guest house, Nathan is startled by the proprietress's similarity to what he imagines will be his wife's appearance in later life. Braxton's first encounter with his elderly relative is the result of apparent telepathy. There are many touches of this sort, and the effect is to bring past and present together in a shadowy and infinitely elusive whole. Curiously, Taylor has hardly any reputation in this country - he is one of those writers whom no amount of praise will ever propel into the public consciousness - but it seems a safe bet that the autumn will yield up few more absorbing novels.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable