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Book review / A regular guy, lost in love's labyrinth

Larry's Party by Carol Shields, Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99
Carol Shields has always been a wonderful manipulator of structure in her fiction. She plays around with the conventions of linear narrative and then delivers some arresting brew of her own. The Stone Diaries served up a whole range of evidence about the life of its protagonist. Happenstance sliced a marriage and gave the wife's point of view, and then the husband's. Mary Swann - a particular favourite with me - hid its dead woman poet behind the obsessive manoeuvrings of her admirers, juggled with evidence again and even supplied persuasive poetry somewhere after Emily Dickinson.

Shields also has a corner in esoteric occupations thoroughly researched. By the end of Happenstance, you knew a lot of interesting stuff about quilt-making. The Republic of Love filled you in on mermaid mythology. The hero of Larry's Party, true to form, is a designer of garden mazes and the story of his life is told in a way that is circular and circumstantial, linear only in the sense that it homes in on him at carefully selected moments.

What all this amounts to is that Carol Shields has thought far more intently than do most novelists about this tricky, seminal and often betraying matter of the selection of evidence. Why tell the reader this rather than that? Her fiction is a cunning tapestry of judiciously chosen threads. You won't see the pattern until the very last moment, when you stand back and look.

Larry's Party ends with just that: the party at which the various elements of his life are brought together for a triumphant denouement. "What's it like being a man these days?" someone asks: a flip, dinner-party remark which then prompts some heartfelt alcoholic comment and also serves as the focus of the entire novel. This is a book about what it is like to be a man at this point in time - or rather, to be a Canadian floral designer (who thinks that he may be, just probably, a little banal) as interpreted by a shrewd woman novelist.

Larry Weller was not particularly bright at school. His reflections on his own possible banality arise when he first comes across the word, at a time when he is obsessed with the fact that he is semantically deprived - "the empty white echo he sometimes hears can be calmed by words". When he left school, his mother enquired about a course in furnace repair but the local college sent the brochure on floral arts by mistake: a nice conjunction of happenstance and linguistic confusion.

Larry is not banal, in the sense that no one is. He could be seen as ordinary - he has no particular distinction of mind, no great powers of perception - but in the hands of his sympathetic creator he becomes a kind of archetype. He is decent, striving and perplexed. This perplexity lies at the heart of things and informs his erratic progress through two marriages and a further relationship until the final watershed. He moves from his first love, sprightly, feisty Dorrie, to Beth, herself something of an archetype: a self-absorbed Eighties woman writing a doctoral thesis on women saints (a quintessential Shields touch, that), who quotes Donne in bed. Women dominate the book, even if it is a man's story - and very properly so, since the questions of gender and the shifting balance between the sexes are the matters at issue.

There are no easy answers here; this is not prescriptive writing. Larry's story is not offered as some salutary tale of what happened to Western men in the last quarter of the 20th century but rather as a reflection of how one such may have perceived his problems. And a convincing account it is too, quite blowing apart that rigid notion that women cannot write of men (or vice versa, for that matter). Through Larry's eyes and by way of his experience we sample all the dailiness of existence alongside the significant themes in his life: the moment when he walks out on his first marriage, his feelings for his son, his unexpected advance as a fashionable designer of mazes for wealthy patrons.

The concept of the maze features prominently - both symbolic (perhaps a bit heftily so) and practical. Early on, Larry goes through some sort of mystical experience in the Hampton Court maze. This came across as somewhat baffling, but I suppose that mystical events are just that. At any rate, the moment discomposes him and acts also as a directive. From then on, maze theory will become an obsession, powering the twists and loops of Larry's progress and lending an idiosyncratic spin to this clever and beguiling novel.