BOOK REVIEW / Marriage: a health warning

Michael Arditti on a young gay writer's acute portrait of a heterosexua l couple; The Law of Enclosures by Dale Peck Chatto and Windus, pounds 15.99
The focus of Dale Peck's debut novel, Fucking Martin, may have lain on the titular verb, but almost as crucial was the narrator's relationship with his parents, Henry and Beatrice, And yet, by dint of the novel's subjunctive mode, with the family dramas and sexual encounters being reviewed from different perspectives, the characters had little chance to develop and Henry and Beatrice remained particularly sketchy. Their more detailed portraits are the subject of Peck's second book.

It is brave of a young writer best known for his gay writing to tackle a marriage. As with Fucking Martin, Peck's structure is experimental. In alternate - yet contemporaneous - chapters, he portrays the young Henry and Beatrice through their early marriage and the old Hank and Bea, 40 years on, when their love is as diminished as their Christian names.

Peck movingly depicts the misfit match between Beatrice, recently released from domestic drudgery and Henry under sentence of death from a brain tumour that is wrongly rumoured to be Aids. After Henry's successful surgery, they marry, drop out of college, take routine jobs and find temporary solace in drink and adultery. The stages of their decline, while not detailed in the narrative, are made implicit in their subsequent despair and in Bea's honest but horrific: "Oh, Hank. You should have just died." In later years, their children refuse to visit them, and their closest relationship is with another unhappy couple, Stan and Myra. After Stan dies, Hank decides that they should move north and build a house next to Myra's trailer. When the house is built, to specifications that are clearly symbolic rather than practical, Henry and Beatrice (for their names have reverted), experience a rebirth of love.

Peck displays remarkable empathy with his elderly protagonists. Myra laments that, "We're the last generation to have long meaningless marriages. Wives waiting for their husbands to die, husbands waiting for their wives to die", and the book is shot through with the spiritual souring of loveless relationships. The moment of Henry and Beatrice's sexual renewal is handled with great grace. The trouble is that much of the writing is stuck in a state of stasis. Once the spring/ autumn contrast becomes clear, as it does very quickly, the novel goes nowhere. The structure sets up a series of simple juxtapositions, while the almost exclusive concentration on Henry and Beatrice is not justified by their intrinsic interest. Peck rises skilfully to the emotional heights, but fails to make the mundane compelling.

The decision to portray both past and present events as contemporaneous is equally restricting. Henry and Beatrice are removed from history. Nothing shapes them beyond the domestic world of their marriage. Nothing wider can shape them because time and place in any meaningful sense do not exist. Peck himself seems aware of the problem when he makes Hank's mother reply to Bea's "This is the Nineties" with "This is not the Nineties, Bea. This is Long Island"; but merely setting it in a backwater does not fill the void.

By far the finest writing comes when Peck abandons his narrative in favour of a memoir of his own parents. The precise purpose of this section in the overall scheme - whether it is to emphasise the fictional nature of the rest or to show how the rows between Peck's father and his four wives feed into the portrayal of Hank and Bea - is unclear. Nevertheless, in his description of his mother's early death and the stories he made up to cope with it, Peck writes with an intensity and commitment lacking elsewhere. Ultimately, it is the author's story, not his fiction, that captures the reader's heart.