BOOK REVIEW / Fresh Bali sugar: 'When the World was Steady' - Claire Messud: Granta, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE sibling protagonists of Claire Messud's first novel are on a quest for some elusive truth that will make sense of their disintegrating middle-aged lives. Separate quests, because Emmy and Virginia have not met for decades. After a bleak South London childhood they have lived on different continents.

Emmy achieved a prosperous Australian marriage; poor Virginia only ever made it as far as spinsterhood in North London and the comfort of her Bible study group. Poles apart they may be but blood will tell and, when their lives simultaneously fall apart around the age of 50, they set off on coincidentally similar pilgrimages.

When the book opens, Emmy's husband has left her, her daughter has become a mild dropout, and Emmy is in Bali carrying 'the burden of her failure' and searching for 'the innermost self she thought she truly was.' We first meet her, lost and hot and thirsty, drinking a bottle of Seven-Up at a roadside stall and contemplating Abang, the sacred mountain.

In London, her sister's life too has gone out of control. Prudish Virginia, growing old in a dull clerical job, has developed an inexplicable, unreturned crush on her boss, 'a judo aficionado who decorated his walls with snaps of himself and his mates (other balding sagging fellows in their forties and early fifties).' With little left but the comfort of her repressive faith she pops into church for counsel and finds her evangelical vicar bonking away with a bespectacled man from the Bible class. Disillusioned with both human and divine love, she allows herself to be dragged off to Skye by her dotty domineering mother. In wet, miserable Skye, dreariness has never been so vividly brought to life. One is made to feel every sadistic raindrop, taste every rubbery fried egg, slither precariously down every greasy rock path.

Bali comes equally alive. There are magical descriptions of the heat, the landscape, the rituals, the ill-advised and painful climb up the holy mountain: 'Emmy thought of the first land animals tearing themselves out of the water, up, along the shore. Everything was dripping: the sky, the sickly caressing foliage, her own skin.' Bali or Skye, Emmy and Virginia come to only a minimal understanding of what it's all about. Claire Messud follows the current trend of writing about dull people coping with the pathetic problems of a banal existence, and the novel is a success in that the sisters and their mother return practically unchanged to the shells of their previous lives, having experienced no major revelation. Emmy carries back only a vague nostalgia for the few magical weeks when she believed she had been herself, Virginia a sense of emptiness that she will continue to bury in an addictive search for God.

The sisters' dullness is so great that I found it difficult to care whether they found themselves or not; all too often my sympathies were with the judo fan and the ex-husband. Happily there are other reasons for enjoying the book - a delightful cast of peripheral characters: shady Australian ex-pats, leftover hippies from the Seventies, the witty old survivor of a mother. And, above all, the wonderful evocation of the two islands, their inhabitants and their lifestyles.