BOOK REVIEW / Journeys of remembrance

THE WRONG GIRL Nick McDowell Sceptre £9.99 AFTER THE RAID Chris Paling Jonathan Cape £9.99 VENETIAN COUSINS Stephen Carroll Andr Deutsch £14.99

Of these three first novels, The Wrong Girl by Nick McDowell is at once the most extreme and the most conventional. It revels in obscenity and suffering but its thematic boldness is not matched by stylistic daring. McDowell clearly wants to tell an authentic story of low-life breakdown, using the artless vernacular of the street, but he seems unwilling to suppress his own very literary intelligence and let his characters speak in their own voices (the novel unfolds in a chain of interconnecting monologues). This leads to a confusing situation in which the principal narrator, Laura Blade, uneasily interrupts her own morbid tales of theft, deviance and sexual abuse to discuss the the Socratic dialogue or the concept of time.

The story follows the overweight and mendacious Laura moving between New York and London until she ends up in an institution for the disturbed in Greece. She offers little by way of explanation for her extraordinary antisocial behaviour - though she hints at the usual unhappy childhood and filial anxieties - before passing the baton of narrative responsibility to a black London taxi driver and an elegantly seedy European psychotherapist.

The chapters in which the taxi driver recounts his sex sessions with Laura are very readable, but unfortunately their humour may not be intentional. McDowell attempts a furious posturing amalgam of Jamaican patois and demotic cockney but the result sounds less like a low-life cabbie than like a posh boy talking dirty.

Chris Paling's After the Raid comes as a sweet relief after Nick McDowell's showiness. So popular has the Second World War become with novelists that one approaches any book on the subject with a heavy heart, but Paling has managed to avoid writing a predictable tale of Nissan huts, austerity or love among the ruins. His style is fluent and simple, unencumbered with superfluous detail. As a producer at the BBC, he wrote his novel while commuting to work by rail - and the climactic moment of the novel appropriately concerns a chance meeting on a train between Gregory Swift, a young man fleeing the London Blitz, and a nurse.

Accompanied by a boy, whom they meet on the train, the couple escape into the countryside, finding a temporary peace in the silence of their surroundings. Both have been changed by their experiences, but it is Swift who seems the most disturbed, and the nurse has to watch helplessly as he slides into madness. He travels to Manchester and is taken into an asylum, only to become a guinea pig for the medical experiments of the doctor who operates on him. The doctor's behaviour is only one example of the cruelty which generally pervades Swift's world. The brutal ending seems a little forced, but After the Raid is an impressive feat of historical imagining.

Another disturbed individual is Thomas Lamb, the hero of Stephen Carroll's un-ashamedly odd novel, Venetian Cousins. Part travel essay, part love letter to the Romantic poets, it tells of Lamb's consuming quest to discover the truth about his origins. His search takes him to Venice, the Lake District and the Alps, but also on a personal journey of remembrance, forcing him to recall his difficult boyhood, and, most painfully, those radiant moments with his "real" father which he knows can never be recaptured. The prose is lush, mannered, and over-written: "Never before had I tasted such delicious champagne. It was a liquid enchantment, an elixir . . ." But this novel is clearly a labour of love, which makes it difficult to dislike.

Jason Cowley

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