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BOOK REVIEW / In the biographer's laboratory: 'The Silent Woman' - Janet Malcolm: Picador, 14.99 pounds

TOWARDS the end of The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Janet Malcolm describes the mood in which we habitually read biography as one of 'bovine equanimity'. One thing that can be said about her intensely compelling, intensely uncomfortable book is that she makes damn sure we can't read it in this complacent state of mind.

As a study of the 'afterlife' of Sylvia Plath, it is less a biography than a book about biography. It focuses on the various lives of Plath which have been published since her suicide, and on the fraught relationship between the writers of these lives and the Plath estate, as represented by the poet's estranged husband Ted Hughes and his indefatigable sister Olwyn.

Malcolm remarks perceptively that the circumstances of Plath's death have a lot to do with the legacy of fraught emotions and distrustful allegiances which has been bequeathed not only to her family but to her biographers: a person who kills herself at 30 'in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess'. She describes the world of Plath biography as an ensnaring 'web'. In another extended metaphor, it becomes a poker game played in an oppressively darkened room. The main building blocks of Macolm's narrative are her interviews with the players at the table. But she is also highly aware of her own ambivalent role as a participant in the game.

Malcolm is as calculating as any poker player. What she is gambling with is the reader's sympathy. Will she seduce us with her brilliantly compulsive narrative, or will she be branded, like the biographer Anne Stevenson, as the author of a 'bad' or 'bitchy' book? The answer is probably both, but she goes out of her way to play with our conflicting responses. One of the most fascinating but disconcerting things about her book is the fact that it consciously enacts the very tensions and contradictions it discusses in relation to the ethics of biography.

Near the beginning, when she discourses on biography's dubious morals, we are tempted by her authoritative tone to accept her as the objective voice of reason. Yes, we say, you're quite right. Biography is a nasty nosey-parkerish intrusion into other people's lives. But later, when she visits the home of Anne Stevenson (who was much criticised for supposedly being in cahoots with the 'censoring' Hugheses and presenting a 'negative' image of Plath), we join her snooping round the house, making judgements on her hostess's lasagna, and poking her nose into the dog's bowl. And we are fascinated. We are enthralled. Despite the earlier health warning about invasion of privacy, we read on as Malcolm pushes us further and further into the dubious business of inspecting the most private aspects of Stevenson's personal life.

Malcolm is right, though, when she says that there is a difference between an interview and a biography. The interviewee has at least agreed to the interview, whereas biographical subjects - and, in the case of Ted Hughes, their estranged husbands - are written about whether they want it or not. In the battle between Ted and Olwyn and the biographers, Malcolm has decided to take the Hugheses side. She tries to imagine how it must feel for Hughes to be 'buried alive' each time Plath's remains are disinterred in a new book, and she shrewdly suggests that what he finds most unbearable is being treated as though he too were dead and on the anatomist's table. Yet even here, there is a nagging paradox. For she is doing exactly what Hughes can't stand: 'reading' his mind on a speculative basis.

Significantly, Malcolm never gets to meet Hughes. In a book full of interviews he is conspicuously the Silent Man, though he looms large in her imagination and haunts the narrative like a hulking ghost. People keep telling her about his enormous sex appeal, and Malcolm reports how this affects her response to his letters, which become hugely attractive in her eyes. Drawn by his magnetism, she hangs around sheepishly in the road outside his house like an unrequited lover. If this attitude seems less than dispassionate, Malcolm would argue that it just goes to illustrate her belief in the 'psychological impossibility of not taking sides'. She not only tells us, but shows us, how our sympathies and antipathies - even, or perhaps especially, those of biographers and journalists - boil down in the end not to logic but to prejudice and emotion.

The Silent Woman is a book that sets out to be provocative and succeeds. It is superbly written, flowing like a piece of music from theme to theme, recapitulating here, changing key there, always disguising the complexity of its underlying construction. Malcolm has a particulary intriguing way of using metaphors to help her make connections. But at the end of the day, she leaves her readers feeling uneasy, as if she has somehow implicated them in the mess too.