BOOK REVIEW / Plum jam and summit confidences: 'Home Truths' - Sara Maitland: Chatto & Windus, 15.99 pounds

READING Sara Maitland's new novel, one comes away with the perception that the author is a fascinating person; thoughtful, intelligent, robust - full of interesting opinions on religion, society, the role of women. Sadly, one does not feel the same about any of the characters in her book, who exist only to service her ideas.

The story begins promisingly. Two British tourists have disappeared while climbing Mount Nyangani in Zimbabwe. Clare is discovered by rescuers, delirious and raving, with her right hand so badly smashed it has to be amputated. David is never found. Before she sinks into post-traumatic amnesia, Clare tells the authorities that she is responsible for David's death.

Back in Britain, she is persuaded to join the rest of her family on holiday in Scotland at Skillen, the 'house of dreams' where they had spent their childhood summers. The cast list of the family is confusing: James the father; Hester the matriarch; Ben the brother, a vicar with a nipple ring; younger sister Ceci, now a nun; along with other brothers, sisters, spouses and children. The confusion is exacerbated by rapid changes in narrative perspective. Despite familial tensions there is a rather horrible upper-class chumminess among the siblings: 'Yummy, yummy,' says one (it isn't clear which), on hearing there is home-made plum jam for tea.

As the family hunt, fish and argue about the nature of faith, there are some beautiful moments of observation. But throughout, the reader is desperate to get back to Zimbabwe and find out what really happened to David. As we learn more about his and Clare's relationship, Maitland demonstrates an acute awareness of lovers' self-deceptions. Clare bas realised long ago that she does not love David but it is a mistake too awful to admit. 'She indulged his every whim and demand, especially if she did not want to, because if she was unselfish then she must be loving. Above all, she never told her friends how she felt, because once said it might become true.'

But despite careful questioning, Clare refuses to remember whether she has killed him or not. The focus of her present trauma is The Hand, the hi-tech prosthesis which she straps to her right wrist each morning. There is some sharp comedy when Alice, Clare's deaf niece, steals The Hand one night and puts her hearing aid in its place.

It takes nearly 300 pages for Clare to remember the events leading up to David's disappearance. But it turns out that it is not what Clare has forgotten that is significant but why. As a theory of human nature, this is intriguing. As the solution to a mystery which has built up for a whole novel, it feels like an evasion.

The plot has been constructed to promote the concept that we must learn to take risks, for risks themselves are beautiful. In the final dream of the book Clare sees herself as a trapeze artist in a glittering costume, throwing herself into the void in the full knowledge she may fall. It is a moving image, and one in which Maitland clearly believes. Describing her recent conversion to Roman Catholicism in The Tablet, Maitland wrote: 'any sane trapeze artist wants a safety net: not to stop her flying but to catch her when she falls.'

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