BOOK REVIEW / Chilly ways with love: Landing on clouds - Olivia Fane: Mandarin pounds 5.95

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THIS novel reveals an archetype so instantly recognisable that Robert Standing may become as much a byword for self-centred beauty as Zuleika Dobson yet (unlike her) he is a credible creation. From the time when, as an undergraduate in the Fifties, he almost kills himself and a girlfriend in an aeroplane, to his arrival 20 years later in the narrator's bed, his amorous career is strewn with bathos. Whether seducing the staff and pupils of a girls' boarding school or maddening a tough-minded painter, Robert's mix of intellectual brilliance, metaphysical idealism and utter selfishness is as irresistible as it is disastrous - not least to himself.

Only one woman makes him fall in love, rejecting him when (in a glorious set-piece) he pours his blood over her, believing it to be his soul. After that, he sees himself as 'a gatherer of the beautiful', leaving the remainder as pulp. 'Nor did these pulped women ever blame Robert,' says the narrator, 'for they blamed themselves for their own mundanity.'

The narrator herself - also called Olivia - counters Robert's lack of affect with a sympathy that saves the novel from rancour, although her investigations into his past reveal damage rather than 'the unfortunate consequences of a pure life' she originally set out to describe. The narrator's naivete, and her discoveries, give rise to a satisfactory narrative tension because we fear she, too, will fall victim in the future. This is a novel of ideas concerning the deceptiveness of appearances and the right way to live. Robert gets it hopelessly wrong each time, despite his certitudes that music can be translated into a meta-language of colour, that acting is the only honest profession, and that what he is looking for is 'the perfect and acknowledged communication of two souls'. He remains inviolate, at once touching and frightful in his picaresque search for truth.

Fane writes with clarity, elegance and a wit which raises her interest in amorous foreplay into the Ovidian. The chilliness marbled through her text regarding pain, and especially that caused by manipulating the lives of others seems more than a stylistic device, however. When Robert's first wife conjugates 'amo' during her defloration, Fane is genuinely novel; but where still-birth and sexual betrayal are described, her archness becomes disturbing. The result resembles Beerbohm on beta-blockers. Had Landing on Clouds described an equally destructive woman, its charms might be less evident. As it is, Fane's debut is the most radiant and least fluffy I have seen this year.

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