BOOK REVIEW / Nothing happens on a trip around the omphalos: 'Mating' - Norman Rush: Jonathan Cape, 15.99 pounds

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AT SEVERAL points during this densely packed and tightly focused novel, you may detect a slight tremor in the narrative: at last, you think, here comes drama, some critical flashpoint that will justify the funereally slow build- up. But no, it's another false alarm, just a bit of turbulence - normal service resumes. Norman Rush is evidently not a writer who's keen to force the pace, and this, his first novel, puts itself under no obligation to deliver thrills on cue. It deserves to be subtitled Nothing Happened.

Why, then, is Mating such a powerful experience? It's not in any conventional way 'gripping'; indeed, given the intensity of its glare, you may feel that it's eminently putdownable. Set in Botswana in the early 1980s, the book takes the formal risk of withholding the name of the first-person woman narrator. She is an American anthropologist on the run from an unhappy family and an unfinished thesis, adrift in the capital, Gaborone.

There she mingles with a disaffected expat crowd, on the alert for a companion - a mate. They come and go: a photographer, an ANC activist, a spy (whom she cutely refers to as 'Z'). The latter tells her of a heart-throb in town, one Nelson Denoon - visionary, polemicist, inadvertent guru to the narrator's college peers: 'I hate drama. I hate dramatisers. But it was distinctly like a building falling on me when I met him'. Here is a man to die for, and in the course of her pursuit, she almost does.

Following her coup de foudre she learns that Denoon is involved in a revolutionary Utopian settlement called Tsau, an ambitious social experiment in which women run the show. She determines to go there, undertaking a perilous trek across the Kalahari in the guise of an ornithologist. For a reader militantly bored by travel writing, this stretch of the book looms unpromisingly. Remarkably, however, it's close to being the best thing in the book. 'Anyone who thinks crossing the Kalahari by yourself is boring is deluded. It's like being self- employed in a marginal enterprise: there's always something you should be doing if your little business is going to survive'. You'd better believe it.

What sustains the narrative, here as elsewhere, is the swaggering confidence and toughness of the writing. Norman Rush suggests, or rather assumes, that nothing could be as interesting as the furniture of this woman's consciousness, and for a good deal of the time he's right. One passage, a delightful meditation regarding the inspiring effects of singing on the solitary traveller, rings all sorts of odd bells, and it's funny to boot.

Its lack of drama notwithstanding, Mating feels like a crowded book. Nothing happens, yet in a way an awful lot is going on. At nearly 500 pages it is formidably digressive: 'My story is turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents, but I feel I should probably say everything.' Rush unfolds before us the map of a love affair, from lush vegetation to rocky terrain. There's little shape to it. Anecdotes and afterthoughts bleed freely into one another.

The style does little to smooth the flow, clotted as it is with Latin tags, loan words and a wealth of bizarre locutions. When Tsau is described as 'the omphalos of my idioverse' around the 100 pages mark, you no longer raise an eyebrow - just reach for the dictionary. Anthropologist as she is, do we appreciate the profound anguish of a moment by being told that 'He looked exsanguinated. I was being driven into seborrheic hyperactivity'? So they were pretty upset, right? Most obtrusive of all is Rush's cavalier way with an adverb - 'drivenly', 'marxistly'. 'ghostlily' and even 'geniusly' troop past, rather too oftenly for comfort.

These and other pretentious formulations would be an eyesore were there not a great deal else happening on the page. Some abrupt apercu or verbal shimmy (I liked the description of dreams as 'some kind of gorgeous garbage') will snag the attention, and you're back on its side once more.

Mating has a confessional, retrospective air, as the narrator conducts a minute and self-lacerating post-mortem on her love affair with Denoon. By the end he has become as inscrutable to her as to us; one might feel cheated by the anti-climax of their parting, though the whimpering close seems truer to the book's spirit.

Rush has achieved a mysterious and intense kind of intimacy in the course of his story. Ironising, amused, self-conscious without being self-pitying, the woman's voice always seems more than a mere impersonation. There are moments in the book when you sense that only a woman could be talking: 'One thing you distinctly never want to hear a man you're interested in say softly is that his favourite book in the whole world is The Golden Notebook. Here you are dealing with a liar from the black lagoon and it's time to start feeling in your purse for carfare.' Is that a handy hint, or what?