A week in books: Men in love: a tale of bonds and vagabonds

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Younger male authors, in these islands at least, don't care to write much about love. You can hardly shut them up about what tabloids call "bonking", nor about what broadsheets dub "relationships". Desire and domesticity, and the fateful passage from one to the other, drive the Hornby imitators down their fictive tracks. Yet their unromantic couplings can often switch from thrills to bills without an intervening stage of fervent delight or despair. Perhaps Oscar Wilde needs an update: all too often, for the fair-to-middling literary lad, love itself (of whatever kind) dare not speak its name.

Of course, there are exceptions to cherish. Alan Warner and Niall Griffiths, who have written with a fine, fearless rapture about truly consuming passions, both have new novels due within the next two months. And any reader who longs to spend Valentine's Day with a male writer who can rise above petulant self-pity or clod-hopping mirth does have some choices beyond taking down a volume of Lord Byron's letters from the shelves. (You could always do that as well, although the bad Lord does tend to blow the competition right away.)

Two new books – one densely corporeal, the other airily cerebral – try with some success to renew the fictional language of love. The fleshly option comes from the Irish writer Sean O'Reilly, in his first novel, Love and Sleep: a romance (Faber & Faber, £9.99). What's new here is not the scenario – a footloose exile returns to the entanglements of home, like a thousand Irish wanderers before – but the way a compelling bond with a person, and place, creeps up on a hero who craves a life without any baggage.

The cynical drifter Niall forsakes Rome, and his inamorata there, for rainy old Derry. Strikingly observed, the post-Troubles city of the late 1990s floats on an uneasy tide of new cash and old political resentments. Lorna, the revolutionary artist, draws Niall back to a life he shunned, at first much against his will. His desire takes on the shape of a destiny, messy, desperate and tragic.

Much fine Irish prose of late has adopted a cool, laid-back timbre – melancholy with Colm Tóibín, or comic with Pat McCabe. O'Reilly, in contrast, combines a smart modern eye with a lavish lowlife sensuality that makes the Bogside sound as vibrant as Trastevere. Unlike many of his peers, he's not afraid to confront the sheer destructiveness of reckless love.

As for the cerebral alternative – which, in this case, means the opposite of dull – it comes from Nicholas Murray in A Short Book about Love (Seren, £6.95). This multi-faceted little jewel is a reader's delight and a cataloguer's nightmare. In part, it's a retelling of the legendary love of Tristan and Isolde; in part, a fragmentary account of a Liverpool Catholic upbringing with all its burdens and blessings; but also, and most strikingly, a patchwork of aphoristic essays on every variety of love. The form, with its 59 digressive sections, brings to mind foreign wizards such as Kundera or Barthes. Yet the tone – a sort of mischievous lyricism, demotic and erudite at once – is the author's own.

Murray flits from carnal to parental love, from the love of self to the love of country, nature or freedom, touching lightly as he goes on topics that stretch from Poussin's pictures and Saussure's linguistics to Greek football fans and the perfect recipe for aubergine parmigiano. Yes, I know: it all sounds incorrigibly arch and conceited, in a post-Barnes and de Botton style. Somehow, however, it avoids any preciousness – chiefly because each flight of fancy soon returns to solid earth with the hero's erratic life of "deferred hopes, of endless new beginnings, of refusals, of resistances."

Love in a hundred guises anchors his vagabond journey and this vagabond book, which proves that "clever" is no synonym for "cold". Forget those bonkers and whiners in the narrow relegation zone of lad lit, and instead join this nourishing excursion into "the wider spaces of the human heart".

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