BOOK REVIEW / Spun out of air and rain: His Mother's House - Marta Morazzoni Tr. Emma Rose: Harvill, pounds 13.99

LONG ON description and short on plot, His Mother's House is a literary helium balloon. It is 100 pages of weightless prose apparently spun from air. Marta Morazzoni makes a virtue of absence; she is all glancing allusion and shimmering evocation. Set in Norway, this brief novel is fairly damp with atmosphere: there are dismal fjords, and it rains in Oslo like a leaking basin.

The hero himself, a woeful gollumpus of a young man called Haakon, is forever struck by the ' . . . awful thought that death might be an endless night without sleep'. It is a mystery why Haakon should be quite so down in the dumps. But Morazzoni is a romantic; sickness and death loomed large in her first book, Girl in a Turban, a somewhat precious collection of short stories influenced by the dark canvasses of Jan Van Eyck and other Flemish painters. Now there are cries and whispers from Ingmar Bergman.

The plot, such as it is, hovers round Haakon's annual visit home to his widowed mother in Bergen, a lakeside estate where it rains all day. Agnes is a dreadful old sourpuss. The only affection she has ever displayed is for her blessed Norwegian garden. And she tends to it like a mad thing, weeding and raking with gloved green fingers. The trouble starts when the nurseryman's daughter inexplicably moves in with Agnes, ousting poor Haakon from his mother's affection. On the face of it, young Felice is there to help with the gardening. But, as always with Morazzoni, there's an undertow of things more sinister. A vampiric relationship? Something sapphic? We are never told; atmosphere is all. Haakon, though, considers Felice a dangerous rival in his love for mother and departs in high dudgeon, sailing back to Oslo for good.

Parasols and horse-drawn trams date His Mother's House to some time before the Great War. This flight from modern times is typical of Morazzoni. Elsewhere she has set stories in the Vienna of Emperor Joseph II, even in 17th-century Holland. Her Norwegian novel has the grainy quality of a sepia photograph, an air of bygone gentility. Like Rosetta Loy and Francesca Duranti - other women novelists writing today in Italy - Marta Morazzoni is a pleasing though minor talent. She writes as though we had never landed on the moon, her prose faintly purple if not antique. If only she would turn to her native Milan (why go to Norway?) for inspiration. Contemporary Italian literature is in need of a pick-me-up.

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