BOOK REVIEW / Triangular passions

Harriet Paterson reads a novel of war and frustration; Midnight Madonna by Sue Bradbury Richard Cohen Books pounds 8.99
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Sue Bradbury's first novel is a variation on the eternal triangle, set against a backdrop of Marlborough, Oxford and the Spanish Civil War. Two boys, Daniel and Philip, meet at school, one rich and smooth, one poor and gawky; the girl of the piece, Edith, is Philip's friend from home, red-haired and bossy. They stage theatricals in the holidays, they have an uneventful time at Oxford, remaining "above" politics. The author has not cast them from the idealistic-volunteer mould; on the contrary, they visit Spain on a whim in 1935, quite unprepared for the fate that awaits them.

Through the course of the book all permutations of two-out-of-three are formed and dissolved. Sue Bradbury delineates with perception the workings of deceit accompanying these pairings, as betrayal is followed by reinforced demonstrations of loyalty to the third. Dynamics within the triangle shift with different surroundings: at school Daniel is at ease, while Philip has the upper hand, being closer to Edith, the boss. In Spain, things change again. Daniel starts off ahead even of Edith, learning the language and making friends, but ultimately it is only the misfit Philip who comes home with any glory, having worked in a war hospital.

Ms Bradbury's treatment of the Spanish Civil War is more atmospheric than discursive. The war acts as an engine to turn the wheels of narrative and reveal character, rather than constituting a focal point in itself. The author steers clear of gung-ho For Whom the Bell Tolls territory: no bonding with partisans or blowing up bridges here - indeed, her protagonists are conspicuous for their inability to become Hemingway heroes, much to their own dissatisfaction.

The question of involvement in war is, however, one of the book's central themes. Edith and Daniel's political apathy is a rejection of their parents' absorption with the First World War. Edith's father is a vicar who did not fight, but his faith does not protect him from guilt, nor from envying Daniel's father, a cavalry officer who lost a leg. As the vicar puts it: "Alive and whole. Not a good feeling after a show like that." Yet the wounded hero is no more satisfied, dogged by physical pain, unable to run his estate effectively. Bradbury questions standard heroic values, suggesting that an honourable position in the hierarchy of suffering is not necessarily a good place to be.

Unable to draw any clear conclusions from this heritage, the next generation wavers from irresolution to indifference. In Spain, two out of three fail to rise to the occasion and they are all bundled ignominiously out of the country when the going gets tough. Daniel fatally undervalues the incipient signs of war and his scant reflections after the event lack any depth of analysis - the most profound summary of his experience he can produce is "a show in which he had played a small part, not very adequately." Edith, having shown early promise as a strong and intelligent woman, turns out to be impervious to the wider issues raised by the fighting and takes from Spain only the complacent memory of her own personal romantic conquests.

The bullfight - an essential constituent of any book about Spain - here proves to be a symbolic indication of the frustrated expectations that are being worked out. Whilst in The Sun Also Rises, the bullfights are a natural climax to the fiesta and perfectly capture all those macho tensions that are sparking off, in this case when the fight finally arrives it rains, and the bull is bored and listless. Bradbury's down-playing creates a sad story of inconclusive lives, personalities cut adrift by war.

Nevertheless, the book's surface is much less gloomy than this suggests, and the three friends have a varied and colourful time grasping at the "real" Spain. Philip's taste in art draws in the paintings of Goya and El Greco, whilst Daniel's conversation lessons bring in Lorca et al. There's some flamenco guitar, of course, dangerous nights in low bars, dressing up for the fiesta and much sipping of manzanillan sherry. Bradbury occasionally slides into bodice-ripper phrasing. ("Daniel raged and wept inside"; "their marriage sealed a destiny which had been mapped out long before,") but this aside, Ms Bradbury's debut has plenty to offer.

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