BOOK REVIEW / In carnivore mood: The Great Divorce - Valerie Martin: Doubleday pounds 15.99

IN THIS unusual novel Valerie Martin tells three partially connected stories that span the last 150 years, and are designed to expose the 'great divorce' between humans and animals. To do this she draws parallels with race, class, and particularly gender divisions. Her writing style is not elevated, but the patterns and details of the stories thrust one question ever more forcefully forward: are human beings more brutal for acknowledging their animal nature, or for denying it?

Each story has a heroine. The most contained among them is Ellen, a vet at a New Orlcans zoo, who has to contend with the outbreak of a lethal virus among the animals, including a black leopard. At the same time her 20-year marriage to her husband Paul is collapsing, not tragically, but in a 'pathetic' manner, as he finds himself a new and younger mate. Camille, the leopard's keeper, is a young girl undergoing a nervous crisis, who doesn't like 'being human,' and whose alcoholic mother provides little other than mental torture.

Camille endures bluntly described sexual liaisons with a number of predatory males before starting a doomed affair with a short-order cook who lives in the old slave quarters behind a cafe. Elizabeth, the subject of Paul's academic research, known sensationally as the 'catwoman,' is executed in 1846 for biting out her husband's throat after he tries to break her spirit first by mutilating the slave who is her personal property, and then by locking up her piano.

This is drastic fare. The three stories unfold quickly to begin with, but Martin then slows all of them down so that we are forced to mark time with the lead characters as they become increasingly demeaned and agonised by their circumstances. As they fight against oppression, all three heroines identify closely with the black leopard: 'liberty could be neither taken from them nor given to them; it was their essence.' As the women's own cages become more apparent to them, they finally cease to register, through madness or otherwise, what the people who control them think, and can then take their lives into their own hands.

The book is shot through with animal vocabulary. The characters are bulls, fillies, foxes or hell cats; they paw at each other, bare teeth or claws mate, bite and destroy. Through all of this we sense the brooding presence of the author herself as she presses the argument that the breach between humans and the rest of nature is increasingly fatal.

Through the character of Ellen she writes, 'how ironic that the only animal capable of appreciating natural beauty is the one bent on destroying it, the only one capable of actually creating ugliness.' Again, emphasising the divorce, she complains that we are enticed into eating oat bran as something ultra-natural, when we are in fact clearly carnivores designed to eat meat; at the same time, her scathing one-word reason for the extinction of big cats is 'hamburger.'

Martin is in effect saying that human beings don't seem fit to be the fittest. The two scales here, one moral or sentimental, and the other wild, are in themselves symptomatic of the great divorce. As Martin exalts the strength and honour of her heroines, and reviles the savagery and abuse of their mates, she draws on both scales to create an entertaining, depressing, almost Gothic mixture.