BOOK REVIEW / One person or two?: 'We So Seldom Look on Love' - Barbara Gowdy: Flamingo, 5.99

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The Independent Culture
WE ARE used to fiction which explores the darker parts of the collective psyche and indeed, we accept the mad and damaged on paper in a way most of us could not in our real lives. Far less familiar is the territory Gowdy explores here - the human body - rather, human bodies; where they begin and end, how different they can be from each other; how we perceive them and how that can shape our lives.

Her cast of characters includes children who are encephalitic, hyperactive, birthmarked, brain damaged. Adults have additions and subtractions which vary from mere dumbness to an extra head. An interest in the non-standard human form isn't entirely new, but the sheer affection of Gowdy's approach is striking. Like one of her characters who describes cellulite as '. . . beautiful, like a peeled litchi nut', Gowdy seems able to celebrate anything. And while she insists upon the practicalities of physical existence, she is at the same time curious as to its metaphysics: is a body with two heads one person or two? Where does the brain really end?

Most of these stories contain as many events as the average novel but Gowdy's flexible, energetic prose pulls everything into shape and they never sprawl. Occasionally the weight of speculation is excessive, and there is some repetition of themes such as the autosite-parasite relationship or a fascination with blood - but these are minor objections. Indeed, it's hard to convey the feeling of sheer excitement that builds up as the book progresses. Each story is a journey into a new way of seeing: you climb in, close the hatch and go.

'Sylvie' concerns a young woman who has always thought of her extra, half-size set of genital organs and legs as her sister, Sue. When Sylvie allows her boyfriend to make arrangements for the 'little legs' to be removed both she and he seem to know that they will lose far more than they gain. They move towards their self-inflicted loss as if mesmerised by the operating theatre lights.

The heroine of 'Flesh of My Flesh' struggles for months towards her final acceptence that her husband is not what she's used to thinking of as a man, but a female to male transsexual waiting for his last operation. On the eve of the surgery that will complete his transformation, she lightly covers her husband's female pubic hair with her hand. 'It's you,' she says. 'It is,' he says, 'and it isn't' Gowdy can turn the strange into wonderful in very few words.