BOOK REVIEW / A mad little plaster saint: 'No Other Life' - Brian Moore; Bloomsbury, 14.99

IF A character sees the light in a Brian Moore novel, the chances are it's at the end of the tunnel. Being one of Moore's chosen few is tough-luck casting: his plots are tortuous terms of trial. They are, however, so guilefully written that they remain irresistible.

No Other Life, his 17th novel, is in the same slipstream. But things have altered in Moore's 40 years as a serious novelist. The Catholic-agnostic now writes like a parsimonious Protestant. No other novelist takes such risks with stylistic simplicity. Vanished for good is the sumptuous detail of Judith Hearne, with its echoes of Joyce; gone is the excoriating prose of An Answer From Limbo, and the dazzling ticker-tape of monologue and memory that drove Mary Dunne. Now, Moore does not stop polishing words until they have melted into the meaning of what he writes.

His latter-day secret is a subordination of almost everything to the momentum of the story. It started with Black Robe's Conradian plunge to the heart of darkness, and continued in Moore's Booker-listed duo: The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence. Here again, in No Other Life, the tale seems to generate itself. It is, apart from anything else, an invitation to critics to fire off cliches about the art of self-concealment.

No Other Life is set in Ganae, a turbulent Caribbean island based somewhat on Haiti's recent history. It is also set in the future - the Pope is 'himself a man of mixed blood'. As an examination of goodness and its corruption, it never slows down or draws attention to the shrewd brilliance of its effects. Even when it hits a crisis of genre identity later on, it glides unfazed towards an ending that is poised, bracing and moving.

Father Paul Michel, a Canadian missionary to Ganae, is Moore's, and the narrative's, mouthpiece. The book is his testament to the most dramatic years of his life, a retrieval and verification of his past in the form of a self-addressed letter: 'So the years hang like old clothes, forgotten in the wardrobe of our minds. Did I wear that? Who was I then?'

The question provokes a rush of images; scenes from a life devoted to mission, a life 'with a secret' centred on Jeannot, a young, gifted noir plucked from poverty by Paul. Jeannot is a brilliant student, a sanctified figure who joins the priesthood and serves the poor in the stricken island's most wretched parish. 'The boy I had rescued from the squalor of Toumalie,' records Father Paul, 'had become the priest I myself had always wanted to be.'

That sentence catches the inner ache, the haunting sense of loss that stamps Moore's writing at its best. Unsentimentally he exposes his characters' tendency to sentimentalise themselves, until they face the final nadir of reality. In the case of Father Paul, this partly explains the zeal with which he throws in his lot with the turbulent Jeannot, who rouses the poor into a ferment of rebellion against the country's despotic ruler, Uncle D.

'The crowds grew. The word spread. In the mansions of the elite there was talk of this mad little priest who preached against the rich.' On page 29 the assassins call. But Moore saves Jeannot for the sake of the plot. Bullets ping against the tabernacle, a candlestick, the arm of a plaster saint at point blank range. It is believable, only just, by about the breadth of the hair it raises on the back of your head. And it gives Moore the chance to spill his crowd scenes across the page with startling economy.

The question that dogs both the action and the underlying morality - the matter of ends and means, of intended and accidental consequences - comes down to this: Is Jeannot a saint or a fanatic, angel or gargoyle? 'Liberation theology is politics, not religion,' one of the other priests flings at Jeannot. The stated dichotomy is false, and in that zone between the force-fields of these extremities the reader is left to fathom a point of view.

Brian Moore is less ambivalent on the matter of the institutional Church, which seems to be up to its neck in politics. Father Paul is not overawed, for by then the incident that gives the novel its title has befallen him, at the time of his hurried return to his mother's deathbed in northern Quebec: 'I have prayed all my life,' she says, 'I believed I had a soul that was immortal. But I have no soul . . . There is no other life.'

It's a seismic moment, and one which seizes Father Paul with the same bleak doubt that haunts the Abbot in Moore's Catholics. He no longer believes in Jeannot's sanctity; the messianic aura is eclipsed. Like La Forgue in Black Robe he acts out of love, love for Jeannot as a son, love made flesh. He knows you cannot insure your soul.

The great uprising and counter-coup which drives the story's latter chapters tilts the novel out of its groove as a moral and intellectual thriller and into adventure terrain, with a striking mulatto heiress arousing Father Paul's 'prideful vanity'. She enters the book like a cypher, slotted into place to dish up insights into the ruling mulatto caste. The putative sexual arousal ends in a cul-de- sac. It's the narrative's Achilles' heel.

But like a shadow, it plays up the surrounding brilliance, such as the walk-on characters (an angst-ridden army Colonel; a stealthy Vatican monsignor) who have the cut of major players from some other novel. No Other Life dovetails questions of allegiance, tests of faith and the clash of cultures into a fiction of ideas tied at its heart to real lives lived. It is Moore's best work by far since Black Robe; at times it bites like a truly great novel. If pleasure indeed corrupts the soul, then this very novel is a 24 carat sin.