Embracing his Argentinian side

Antonia Logue welcomes a narrative master
The Story of the Night by Colm Tibn, Picador, pounds 15.99

War, love and South America: the novel by Andrew Lloyd Webber? Well, not quite. As far from squeaky musicals as he is from Garcia Marquez's magic realism, Colm Toibin in his third novel moves beyond anything he has done before: the Irish high court judge in The Heather Blazing, the Irish woman gathering her life together in Fifties Spain in The South, his first novel.

In content, his new novel could scarcely be more different. In style, however, he remains exactly the same: terse and spare, whatever the odds.

The Story Of The Night is set in Argentina in the Eighties. The narrator, Richard Garay, lives with his ageing English mother, who in turn lives in a fictional British Empire, replete with all the coarse iconography and devotion to Thatcher that comes from dotty jingoism. Richard is gay and teaches English for a living, but his daily life contains little more than casual sex with strangers and a fruitless crush on one of his pupils.

Then his mother dies, and suddenly the Falklands War arrives and departs within a matter of pages. After the war, Richard becomes involved with an American espionage couple who introduce him to all sorts of US oil- investors with a very specific political agenda: the privatisation of Argentinian oil. Suddenly he's rich, wearing suits, and being seduced - the classic American Eighties yuppie in a country raped blindfold by political corruption and savagery.

At exactly the point he chooses to embrace his Argentinian paternity, Richard evolves into both its antithesis and personification - a fact which is brought clearly home to him at an elite party given by the Americans, when he discovers that a former classmate he thought had dropped out of college had in fact been dropped out of a plane, drugged, somewhere over the ocean, one of Argentina's Disappeared ones.

Richard is saved from the consequences of a lifetime's unhappy sexual ambivalence by Pablo, brother of the tauntingly heterosexual Jorge, the pupil on whom he had such a crush. By falling deeply in love he abandons the constraints of his life hitherto, and repatriates his identity, not through Argentina, but through his emotional fulfilment.

Toibin's most consummate skill as a writer has long been his gift for pacing a narrative. This is achieved through more than structural finesse - both tone and subtle details of character are used like fine wire to bind ideas together. Moments that teeter on the edge of triteness are saved by Toibin's use of language. What begins as a story of political, social, and emotional isolation becomes a narrative of inclusion: the story of a much wider society.

The novel is filled with explicit sexual encounters, but the detached, precise narration never wavers, even when describing a grapple in a sauna. It's a style which initially affords the reader little chance of warming to the central character; but through this arm's-length approach Toibin manipulates and confounds the reader's judgement.

The intellect which has so conspicuously powered Toibin's writing career is fired here with a new ambition and purpose. Few doubted that Toibin had a great novel in him; the surprise is that it has come so soon.