BOOK REVIEW / Mexican baguettes and rigid politesse: Air and fire - Rupert Thomson: Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

RUPERT THOMSON'S powers of invention are disturbing. Previous novels featured an arcane English village where escape is forbidden, and the creepy 'Moon Beach', a town of funeral parlours on the Florida coast. It is the apparent familiarity of his settings which makes them so unsettling, they are at once real yet wholly imagined - perfect requirements, one might think, for a historical novel.

Gustave Eiffel's tower, that most potent monument to modernity, rang in the new technological century 11 years before it properly began. That unshakeable sense of optimism is still in the air as Air and Fire opens, on a tramp steamer carrying a similarly designed wrought iron church - in 2,348 pieces - to the remote French mining outpost of Santa Sofia in Mexico.

There's some factual basis for this fastidiously researched novel: Eiffel also designed the locks for the first, disastrous attempt to build a canal across Panama. You could therefore be forgiven for supposing that this will be another allegorical tale, like Herzog's epic film Fitzcarraldo or Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, of white men's folly in a hostile 'torrid zone'. In fact what this fin de siecle story offers is different, and focuses on the emotional embroilments of the main characters. That is Thomson's strength, but the novel's weakness.

Theo Valence is Eiffel's fictional protege, and his iron church an apparent jewel of the age. In fact, it is revealed to be merely an extended arm of colonial power and becomes almost incidental to the story. The real spirit of modernity is in the transformation of Suzanne, Theo's wife, as she becomes suffocated in her loveless marriage and strangled by the formality of the colonial French.

Typically, Thomson's beautifully rich prose is dripping with inspired metaphors and similes, coined with apparent ease. The broader analogies are equally captivating. One particularly flamboyant character, Dr Bardou, browbeats a Mexican baker into producing baguettes for the expatriate French. His insistence and the baker's repeated failure demonstrates in microcosm the determination of the alien community to transform their world of heat and dust into a suburb of la belle France.

As in earlier works, relationships have a doomed and desperate quality. Suzanne loses two babies by miscarriage, then her husband, then Wilson Pharoah, the local American prospector who - along with a cocksure and reckless Mexican Captain - is in love with her. But a strong narrative line is not a feature of Thomson's writing, though previously this hardly seemed to matter, his descriptive passages being so poetic and the intricacies of the relationships between the characters so entrancing as they moved in tight orbits around each other.

Air and Fire, though, is less satisfying. There is still a great wealth of creativity and language, but the rigid politesse of the French, which Thomson implicitly condemns, and the terrible aridity of the climate seem to have affected the tone of the book in some insidious way. Suzanne's relationships with Theo, Wilson, and the dangerous Captain Montoya, lack the intensity to carry the novel without the driving force of a plot. The closing pages convey a truly touching sense of loss, as Thomson intends, but also leave us with a sense that something is missing.