Saturday 31 August 1996
Explorers of the Western Himalayas 1820-1895 by John Keay (Murray, pounds 15.99) Keay is a good man to go into the mountains with. His great chunk of a book is packed with staggering achievements by a cast of scarcely credible characters, ranging from the mysterious pioneer, Col Gardiner, who went semi-native (a tartan turban) and had to clamp "a pair of steel pincers round his gullet" to facilitate drinking following a throat wound, to the Great Game hero, Younghusband, who continued cold-water dips when high in the Pamirs (the water froze in his tub before he could undress). Keay knows the territory well and tells his tales with great verve.
Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (Eland, pounds 8.99) Perhaps Lewis's finest work, this stylish diary covers his time as a Field Security Officer in the first, dangerous year after the Allied invasion. Though on the brink of starvation, the Neopolitans insisted on maintaining una bella faccia and a vigorous interest in sexual activities. The result is a memoir both shocking and hilarious. Its cast includes a professional Zio di Roma (a "Roman uncle" who brings a touch of class to funerals) and a gynaecologist who "specialises in the restoration of lost virginity". Often scathing about his fellow invaders, Lewis comes to admire his vivacious hosts.
The Breezes by Joseph O'Neill (Faber, pounds 5.99) Lightning never strikes twice, except in the Breeze family. Joseph O'Neill's chirpy tale of a suburban Irish family that survives two weeks of consecutive disasters will appeal to those of a neurotic cast of mind. Car accidents, late arrivals and health scares haunt the life of Johnny Breeze, who by the end of the novel has developed rings under his eyes as black as his father's, though a new nonchalance to telephone calls in the middle of the night. A second novel with a nice feel for the troubled warmth of family life, and the perils of stepping outside. The luck of the Irish has never been worse.
The Visitation by Sue Reidy (Black Swan, pounds 5.99) Yet another novel about growing up Catholic, but at least its setting, Sixties New Zealand, makes a refreshing change. Catherine and Theresa Flynn are obsessed by the lives of the saints, and spend many hours recreating their bloody deaths in the back yard. But it's only when the Virgin Mary actually appears to them (with rosebuds between her toes and a message for the Pope about contraception) that the girls start to take their vocation as martyrs seriously. Religious kitsch and Kiwi provincialism hang in the air like the after-smell of Mrs Flynn's mutton chops.
King David by Allan Massie (Sceptre, pounds 6.99) Allan Massie's biblical epic about the life and times of King David reads like a really bad B-movie. Everyone speaks in an archiac tongue more appropriate to Star Trek aliens, and it's almost impossible to keep a handle on all the characters (Doeg the Edomite, Achish of Gath and Adonijah the Goatskin) without frequent reference to the book's daunting "List of Characters''. A few passages detailing the "good, not evil'' passion that exists between David and Jonathan, son of Saul, occasionally peps up the proceedings, but even the slaying of Goliath manages to fall flat.
Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham (Penguin, pounds 6.99) In this generational novel of the Stassos family of New Jersey there is the usual litany of American woes: Homecoming Queens, incest, divorce, valium addiction and tract housing. But somehow Cunningham manages to keep the clouds of dysfunction sufficiently whippy to maintain reader interest well after 1958.
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