BOOK REVIEW / Gritty fruit and dreams of rubies: The weather in Iceland - David Profumo: Picador, pounds 13.99

IT IS 1998 and Britain has become a republic, policed by a president and an army council. The royals have fled, with their millions, to Canada and California, and the citizens who remain are allowed to think what they like provided they do what they're told. But the English weather has taken its revenge. Instead of trailing the national news, it now dictates it, spitting black snow, red rain and summer storms that 'drive blades of grass through sheet metal'.

This could have set the stage for some fanciful satire and futuristic games had David Profumo chosen to pursue such a line. It serves, in fact, as little more than an outer casing for the novel's more conventional trawl through the life and times of a typical English aristocrat - a whisky-sodden duke, now in exile in a Swiss canton. An often verbose narrator, the duke casts a nostalgic eye over his past, offering us attempts at a philosophical, and weather-orientated, overview: 'I will think of us as having been subject to the strange weather of what goes down in the reading books as History'; or 'the meaning of life . . . just goes round and round. Like the weather in Iceland.'

The duke's memories, nevertheless, occasion some of the most memorable writing in the novel, when Profumo relaxes his narrator's mannered style and releases a naturally lyrical turn of phrase. The passages on early childhood are particularly rewarding, as the duke recalls his mother reading to him - 'I fell under her glamour as she spun me to sleep' - or picking strawberries, 'one gritty fruit in the mouth for each that got dropped in the trug, a dream of rubies'.

As he progresses from prep school to Eton to Oxford, cataloguing along the way his various sexual exploits, there is much that is entertaining, if not exactly new. But what feels like a strong autobiographical impulse behind much of this is at odds with the more fantastic and free-wheeling tone adopted elsewhere, making the novel somewhat disjointed.

A brief foray into the history of barbed wire, however, is less arch than it first seems, contributing to the novel's pervasive air of hostility and confinement. (The publishers are a little too keen we should not forget this, punctuating the text not with asterisks but with drawings of barbed wire.)

And the death by drowning of his young son, revealed towards the end of the novel, helps to account for the half-stifled atmosphere that clings to the duke and his 'cobweb of words'. The fact that he can bring himself to say so little about the drowning is a measure of the shock it imparts, and places him finally in a more sympathetic light: 'It is dark and cold down here, and yet I do not wish to surface. I have become accustomed to my liquid world, and will not be coming up for air. I must hold this breath for the rest of my life.'