Champagne for the health of the bride

TO THE WEDDING by John Berger, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

JOHN BERGER's G, a bold, experimental novel about sex which won the 1972 Booker Prize, established the author as one of British fiction's most innovative voices. This was confirmed throughout the Eighties with the appearance of Into Their Labours, a trilogy mixing fact and fiction, and based on his life in a peasant community in the Haute-Savoie.

Now nearly 70, Berger has come up with a book almost as surprising as G. Shorter, less aggressively experimental, To The Wedding reads like a cry from the heart. It is really a prose-poem, the text weaving in and out of different voices, each telling different stories - Berger has always been driven by the primacy of story-telling - and built around one central tragedy: a young woman contracts Aids through a casual sexual encounter.

The tale is told backwards by a blind seer, a Greek seller of talismans in an Athens market. Ninon, the daughter of an Italian railwayman, Jean Ferrero, is terminally ill; her father motorcycles with her to Greece to be with her after her wedding. The talisman he buys for her, a tama, is a blessing for the health each knows Ninon cannot recover.

That is the oblique, and bleak, opening. Homerically, Ninon's story is told through what the unnamed principal narrator can "hear" - right across Europe, indeed - rather than "see": a phone conversation about champagne for the wedding, between Jean (in the French Alps, where he works) and Ninon's future father-in-law near Ferrara, the tinkling of piano music in a Bratislava flat where Ninon's mother Zdena lives.

Much of the novel is concerned with travel: Jean's trip across the Alps, Zdana's from Slovakia to meet her former husband on the River Po, both knowing their daughter will die young, and Ninon's own journey - from youth and sexual impetuosity to a terrible state of self-knowledge. Though the three central characters are experiencing a bitter tragedy, the tone is elegiac rather than doom-laden, the colours and textures far from stygian.

And Berger's Europe is precisely painted, never melodramatic: "Along the Po there is such a heaviness in the air that the swallows are flying at knee level to collect the weighed-down insects." Zdena's coach rolls by "greens, poppy reds, mustard yellow. Hill gives way to hill, and the far ones are lavender-coloured. They pass lorries from Istanbul and Sofia. Up by the windowscreen the light dazzles as from a hundred keyrings."

To The Wedding is full of such picture-painting, and peopled by an engagingly odd assortment: a bunch of computer-hackers with whom Jean camps down one night, a bald fellow-Bratislavan Zdena sits next to on the coach who comforts her with meandering stories from the encyclopaedia he edits, and Gino, a young, fishing-obsessed Italian from whom Ninon first thinks she has caught Aids (in fact it was a cook and ex-con), and who selflessly marries her.

Inevitably the climax of the novel is their wedding, a lovingly described, self-indulgent fete champetre spread over the last 30 pages of the book. At times too juicy and jolly to be quite real, the eating and dancing are nonetheless intercut with moving premonitions of Ninon's illness. Berger's seer knows what's coming, and pens a bucolic epithalamium shot through with the imagery of contemporary sorrow.

"Aids novels" risk mawkishness, stretching the boundaries of sentimentality. Berger is too good a writer for that; he makes his novel one about crossing other kinds of boundaries - cultural, historical, geographical - without losing focus on the desperate medical condition at its heart.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future