BOOK REVIEW / Sharks with bad porpoises: Burning bright - Helen Dunmore: Viking, pounds 15

WITH Zennor in Darkness, a novel of innocence forsaken, Helen Dunmore made her down payment on posterity. Now she follows it with a gem of rapt compactness, Burning Bright, in which the concision of her language is a laser probing the squalid recesses of on-the-make modern Britain.

'All that money Kai]' purrs Nadine. 'Where does it come from?' The whisper of money riffles the pages of this tale; it wafts through the dealings of Kai and Tony, a pair of sharks ostensibly playing the property game. Nadine, adrift from friends and family, and from the prospect of university, noses the edge of their cesspool world of sordid sex deals.

She plays the pimpernel, not yet scarlet, to Tony's pimp. She and Kai (aptly Finnish, for a shark, and twice her age) are tangled lovers, holed-up in a crumbling Georgian property. The upstairs neighbour, Enid, is perched at the opposite end of life. Her memory casts a shadowy finger across the century, and she herself is haunted by the Manchester Ladies Club of yore, by her one-time love affair with Sukey, and by the rattle of Sukey's death.

The Georgian house, with its walls made of Christmas cake, becomes the spacious vault of all their secrets. We slip through the tenses - from Nadine's drift into the undertow of Kai and Tony's intentions, to the sepia past, burnt-edged by murder, of Enid's remembrance. There's a texture in the writing that makes one think of Jeanette Winterson; a mapping of the spaces within which characters prosper or die that conjures Anne Tyler.

Helen Dunmore gets in close while keeping her distance. She mingles the supple art of escape (for this is a deeply gripping tale) with attention to inscape. We watch as Nadine, duly burnished by Kai and Tony for prostitution, is led to the penthouse lair of Paul Parrett, a cabinet minister whose hunger for sexual kicks becomes a game. Obsession shifts the scenery when reality's not looking, wheeling in a hint of the surreal.

This is a world of the mind cast adrift on memory and longing, a wave that breaks on to a half-imagined landscape: Nadine's future, Enid's past. Given edge by Helen Dunmore's scrupulous moral curiosity, it is also an enquiry into guilt and responsibility. Might Enid have altered the course of Sukey's fate? Or cautioned Nadine concerning the plans of Kai and Tony? And what if Nadine should blow the whistle on Paul Parrett? Is her moral responsibility for his fate conditioned by motives, or is it somehow absolute?

The tautly plotted circle links present to past, cause and effect, the dead with the living - a narrative necklace with Enid's life as its tentative clasp. She gets to die, or so it seems, in the book's seismic scene, in the violent jaws of a scissored illogic, bludgeoned by Kai. It triggers his flight, with Nadine in tow, to the flattened landscape of Finnish lakes, a refuge pitted with psychological bends and bumps where she learns Kai's version of the truth.

In the knifing cold of a lake she swims to cleanse herself, to make tracks that will not be traced. The swans observing her remind us of Enid and Sukey, Parrett and Tony, hobbled or hopeless, pressing on, swimming silently in the curves of each others' wakes, into an endgame that cushions the risk and softens the mettle of what is otherwise a wonderfully bracing read. Written with guile that makes it seem guileless, and full of integrity, this is Dunmore's darkest rainbow.

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