BOOK REVIEW / Things that go crash: 'Black Diamond' - Rachel Ingalls: Faber, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
RACHEL INGALLS writes the kind of macabre, fantastic and haunting fiction called American Gothic. You know the sort of thing: doomed families, incest, and mansions with mummies in the attic and Mummy in the cellar. It is the stuff of countless bad books and films: except that, unlike the English version which Jane Austen sent up in Northanger Abbey, American Gothic is a serious art form. Its antecedents lie not in the hysterical 18th-century rebellion against reason, but in Jacobean tragedy, and in the complicated American relations with greed and Puritanism.

Rachel Ingalls is one of the most brilliant practitioners of this Gothic since Poe. Every volume she has written displays the craft of a quite remarkable talent. Tales of love, terror, betrayal and grief, which others would spin out for hundreds of pages, are given the occluded force of poetry.

Black Diamond is a collection of five short stories, loosely linked by the theme of kinship. Ghoulish and gripping, they all begin in an atmosphere of unsophisticated tranquillity. Sometimes, as in 'Somewhere Else', the horror never quite breaks through, but is more potent for being suggested. Are Beth and Alan dead and in hell, or is their journey through the Scandinavian pine forests simply taking a very long time? The nightmare of dying in an aeroplane crash is experienced by each of them - but then, as Alan knows, 'It was only a cliche . . . one of the earliest myths: Lot's wife, Orpheus and Eurydice. You turned round, and she was gone, or dying, or transformed. Or, maybe, just divorced'.

This marrying of myth onto modernity is one of Rachel Ingalls's most powerful traits, and one to which she always returns in her best work. Sometimes, as in her novel Binstead's Safari, magic triumphs over the utter tragedy of discovering love too late; and sometimes, as in Black Diamond, the protagonists are doomed or saved by forces beyond their control.

'Last Act: The Madhouse' is about a rich and idealistic young man called William, for whom Italian opera is an escape from small-town banality. Like an operatic hero, he falls in love with a lower-class girl, and she with him. She becomes pregnant, but their plans to marry are thwarted by William's mother, who forges letters which persuade Jean to have an abortion. Years later William discovers the truth, but with no less frightful results.

As with all tragedy, this story leaves the reader wondering whether fate, character or the wrench of trying to make life fit a concept is to blame. There are no unambiguous answers. Alma, in love with her adopted brother and bearing no ill-will to the woman who bore her, escapes a bus crash to find the yearning parent of her dreams in 'Bud and Sis'. And in 'Be My Guest', we do not know whether the simple Sandra has married a psychopath, but even if she has, it seems possible that the power of her goodness will save his son from following suit.

'Love is a poison' says one character - but like many poisons, it may cure as well as kill. The fiery dreams of Black Diamond do not quite measure up to those of previous collections, yet they writhe with energies far beyond those of any British writer. American Gothic seems to be superior because its practitioners, such as Rachel Ingalls, take evil seriously. Read her at your peril.

(Photograph omitted)

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