BOOK REVIEW / A kaftan festooned with starfish: 'Partial Eclipse' - Lesley Glaister: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
'After three days I'll be out of solitary . . . I do like that about time - the reliability of its passing. I'm doing time. A good expression. Apt. Although sometimes it feels more like time is doing me.' The speaker is Jennifer Maybee, steadily approaching the age of 30, the end of her week in solitary confinement, and the date of her release from prison. The minute particulars of her days alone provide a rigid, grey-beige framework to this novel, within which two other far more lurid and eventful tales are picked out in brilliant colours, predominantly peacock-blue and flame.

Lesley Glaister introduced this heroine as a child in an earlier novel, Digging to Australia. Then, she was living with her embarrassingly nudist grandfather and her knitting grandmother. Now we meet her again in her second year of an English degree. It is Christmas, and her widowed grandmother decides that the two of them should escape from their loneliness to the overheated splendour of a Scottish hotel. Here, each encounters her destiny.

The grandmother meets and is bowled over by Ursula - vast, outspoken and dressed in a pongy kaftan festooned with desiccated starfish and seashells - and she realises she has met her match when, on Boxing Day, Ursula appears in a costume hand- woven out of wool collected from barbed wire fences blended with combings from her late ginger tom. They stroll off-stage together, happily gathering disgusting objects for their 'sculpture sauvage' project, enrolling for evening classes in taxidermy and preparing for a gloriously bizarre life together. Jennifer is left to the tender cruelties of another Tom - human, this time, and dangerously alive.

The affair with Tom, which, we assume, has somehow resulted in Jennifer's prison sentence, is sad and classic. He is definitely married, a compulsive seducer: she falls obsessively in love, prepared to sacrifice her whole life to him. It ends in more than tears when 'his sheep's clothing tumbled to the floor and I saw the dark hair on his hands and the faithless glint in his brown eyes. I saw the sharpness of his teeth'.

In prison, she thinks about her ancestor, Peggy Maybee, of whom nothing was known save that she had stolen a peacock and been transported to Australia. In a device of pleasingly conscious artifice, Jennifer announces her intention of creating a story to surround these meagre facts. The effect of this trick is threefold. At first, Jennifer seems more 'real' than her creation; then we become caught up in Peggy's eventful life; finally, the three threads of narrative become intertwined. Jennifer in her cell recounts the grisly outcome of her affair. Then she casts Peggy adrift on the ocean, giving her a slender chance of salvation and finally she offers herself, too, a crumb of comfort in the strength of her imagination and courage: 'Well, now I am naked to the gasping heart and ready to begin again'.

This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with life and colour. It ranges confidently across the centuries and the world, from a week in a stifling cell to crossing the equator during a partial eclipse of the moon on a convict ship, taking in wintry Pitlochry, penurious London slums and sunlit East Anglia on the way.

(Photograph omitted)