BOOK REVIEW / Ghostly sons and lovers: 'The Magnolia' - Philip Callow: Allison & Busby, 5.99 pounds

PHILIP CALLOW's career as a writer runs back to the Fifties. Common People, a fine early novel, dates from 1958, and he contributed to Tom Maschler's collection of 'committed' post-Suez essays Declaration (1957).

Though you can search through the literary histories without finding so much as a mention of his name, Callow has ploughed a distinctive if lonely furrow. His strongest influence has always seemed to be D H Lawrence: certainly his heroes tend to be aloof, embittered solitaries, their vigour guttering away in relationships with unsympathetic women or frustrated grapplings with art; it is perhaps significant that his latest protagonist should harbour vague notions of writing a book about this 'crazy, marvellous man'.

The Magnolia is a slight variation on Callow's familiar themes of neurosis, deracination and unease. Sent to recuperate from a nervous breakdown in a hospital on the fringes of what might be Dartmoor, Daniel, its middle-aged hero, finds himself gradually enthralled by the gargantuan meals, routine chatter and pill-fuelled brooding. Serenity leads to reflection and, prompted by an inquisitive fellow-patient, he begins to trawl back through the frets and crises of his adult life. Most of these have to do with his wife, Cora, and by far the longest section of reminiscence is taken up with the doomed relationship she conducted years before with an Irish aesthete.

More pressing is the question of immediate destiny. Let out of the hospital, Daniel decides against returning to Cora and his disapproving mother-in-law and settles instead for a stay with his equally neurotic mother. When this becomes unbearable ('her morbid conscience gave him no rest') he resolves to buy his own cottage in a remote part of the West Country. There, sustained by a few inconclusive relationships, he hears news of his mother's death; the event prompting in him an odd resignation, a determination to endure, and a belief that 'for some mysterious reason he had been spared, granted another chance'.

Unobtrusively set out - most of the action seems to take place in the early Seventies - the writing benefits from Callow's impressionistic eye for detail: 'The light was harsh, the bushes of evergreen glittering, full of knives, the gravel dry and glittering underfoot'. Elsewhere the gnomic, repetitious conversations of a husband and wife burning with mutual antipathy have a dreadful air of conviction. All this might sound famously depressing - a sort of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest without the jokes. Oddly, the effect is to make one wish that more people wrote in this grainy and resolutely down-beat style.

The Magnolia is slightly old-fashioned: guilt, fear, Lawrentian humanism - even the diligent symbolism of the tree that gives the novel its title seems mildly stagey. The resigned, stoical finale, too, stirs all sorts of 40-year- old ghosts. To balance this is the thought that few of Callow's fellow Fifties survivors have worn as well.

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