BOOK REVIEW / A lush maze of love: Eros and Psyche - William Riviere: Hodder & Stoughton pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS third novel, William Riviere's serious exploration of love's freedoms and responsibilities straddles the line between the profound and the profoundly pretentious. He presents the relationship between Imogen and her former lover Dario in such a mannered style - every other sentence seems to begin with 'Ah . . .' - that it may tax the patience of even the most avid fan of The Venetian Theory of Heaven, his remarkable second novel.

The plot of Eros And Psyche is both arch and slight. During a 24 hour period staying with her godmother, Laura, on a vividly evoked Greek island, Imogen circles Dario, unwilling to define their relationship by confirming or denying that he is the father of her child.

But then the chief delight of Riviere's fiction has never been the plots. He is an outstanding descriptive writer, who can summon the apt metaphor and the unexpected but evocative phrase at will. And there is much of that skill pleasurably in evidence here.

Imogen and Dario are in a sense the modern Psyche and Eros. In the classic myth, Psyche is banished by Eros, the god of love, for shining a light on him. Imogen has been banished by Dario for the same offence, though presumably in her case this is metaphorical. Imogen is a natural mystic; Dario is a natural sceptic. But Riviere takes only what he wants from the myth. Indeed, another myth, that of Daedalus's labyrinth, is more central to the novel.

The labyrinth is a complex metaphor in the book. Imogen searches in the labyrinth of her emotions for self knowledge. She lures both Dario and Laura into this maze of concepts and words. Laura goes deepest, fearing that 'the minotaur at the centre will be Imogen's monstrous selfishness'.

The novel mirrors Imogen's emotions with its labyrinthine structure. Most of the novel is made up of interior monologue that Riviere renders in long, elaborate sentences that wind, change direction, double back and whose meaning sometimes collapses under the weight of their own parentheses. Raymond Carver he ain't.

This is an old-fashioned novel about moral issues. Its fundamental weakness, however, is that Imogen is so unattractive and so arrogantly self-absorbed that her moral dilemma comes across as mere wilfulness. And Dario, the experienced womaniser, the representative of scepticism, is a drip.

Riviere's novel is vaguely reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell's fiction, whose patrician characters also discuss love and life in quasi- philosophical terms in lushly realised mediterranean settings. Durrell too could over-embellish, Durrell too could be mannered. If you are in the mood, the heightened way in which Riviere's characters think and speak can make for a delirious read. If you are not, it can just seem rather precious.