BOOK REVIEW / Pottery and shrink abuse: 'Schoom' - Jonathan Wilson: Lime Tree, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
TWO OF the stories in Jonathan Wilson's superb debut collection feature the same narrator, Sam, a British sculptor living in Jerusalem. In the first it is 1982, with the invasion of Lebanon just beginning, and Sam is wondering whether to marry his American girlfriend Rosie. She hears he has been going around asking everyone's advice on this and takes a mighty dim view of it.

In the other, placed much further on in the book, Sam meets Rosie and her new husband in Cyprus, where he is having to make an idiotic day trip so he can re-import a new bike to Israel tax-free; but although he tells us this is only a few months later, he also tells us it is now 1989 and says he has only lived in Israel for eight years, whereas before he claimed to have lived there since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Cyprus? Double time schemes? Remind you of anything? Wilson's 'mistake' is more likely to be deliberate than Shakespeare's warped chronology in Othello, but serves much the same purpose of underlining the writer's basic artistic strength and his sense of what matters. It also prevents the two stories looking like fragments of the same unfinished novel, which would be wrong: they are whole and sound in themselves.

Wilson likes to show what he can get away with. He adopts a young woman's persona to tell the story of a kidnapping in a smart Tel Aviv suburb. He gives us the diary of a middle-aged American astronomy professor accused of politically incorrect glances at a student ('that is my name, Emanuel Levitan, Hoyle Professor of Reckless Eyeballing'). Born only in 1950 himself, he contrives an effective childhood memoir of London in the Blitz, although the plot turns on a defecting United States airman and this mistake, bringing America into the war a year early, irritates even if, or especially if, it is meant to illustrate the creative vagaries of memory.

He conjures enormous and sustained menace out of a car breakdown on the Jericho road by playing on the Jewish family's sheer embarrassment in the face of the gathering Arabs who might be going to murder them horribly, or fix their car, or neither, or both.

The stories are not merely exercises because Wilson succeeds so well in nearly everything he sets out to do and puts a certain spin on it besides, with humane pessimistic wit. Only a couple of times does he strain for 'meaning', as when the stargazer Levitan cogitates on observing and being observed, or when Sam decides that the fact of death 'never fits'; and at least it is done humorously.

Sam is thinking of a friend's recent, shocking death, but also of a pair of cheap custom-made shoes that have come out a size too small, made by a Cypriot cobbler who wished his sick wife out of the way and is now lost without her. Levitan's concern as to the rightness of uncovering the mysteries of the universe is naturally inspired by the ludicrous but very threatening harassment charges against him and the awesome power that campus feminists attribute to the human gaze.

The eponymous Schoom, and I assume that's shoom not skoom, is a Jerusalem therapist, given to Freud's hobby of antiquarianism, who persuades his client to steal a pottery shard from an archaeological dig for him: it's a beautifully observed piece of everyday psychiatric abuse, though not quite as symbolic as the recent true story in the London Review of Books about the shrink who made his client buy his dank, decaying, overpriced house from him, which would suit the wry Wilson treatment very well.

Wilson has lived in Britain, Israel and now the eastern US, and has a sure perception of all three settings and cultures. His style is simple and mature and he recognises that, somehow, people age but never really grow up. His protagonists tend to be in the soup without the least idea how they got there.

The interplay of tragic and comic is expertly managed. In the story 'From Shanghai' he approaches a tragic subject by way of the mysterious appearance of the world's second largest Hans Andersen collection, 20,000 volumes, at a Tilbury warehouse in 1955, and notes as an afterthought that the collector, whose wife and son were taken by the Nazis, has pathetically marked one copy by underlining, in the last sentence of 'The Brave Tin Soldier', the words 'burnt to a cinder'.

We are probably meant to see hidden here the Greek word for a burnt offering, holocaust, and by concealing it Wilson has both restored some of its outworn effect and shown the inadequacy of words - and even sentiments - before certain cruelly ill-fitting facts. His easy, readable manner belies a formidable talent.