FICTION IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
Fish Show by James Delingpole, Penguin pounds 6.99. What might you expect to find in the debut novel of a young Spectator, Tatler and Telegraph journalist? A first-person narrative about a magazine hack who used to go to public school and Oxford? Correct. And to open that narrative with the hero's arrival at his Canary Wharf office, just a few floors from the Telegraph (and the Independent on Sunday), seems a little too close for comfort.

The narrator is Giles Fripp, 30 going on 60, a restaurant reviewer on Knobbes Journal. This proudly stuffy publication has just moved from its historic oak-panelled offices to the unfriendly modernity of Docklands. Even more drastically, the Journal has been relaunched as a desperately hip lifestyle magazine entitled Knob. Fripp is one of the few members of staff left over from the old days, and, he is informed by the supercool new editor, he too will soon be seeking alternative employment unless he writes about restaurants that are both daringly trend-setting and undiscovered by Knob's competitors. The only way to do that, Fripp reasons, is to invent the restaurants himself.

Beginning with a fantasy that all food critics must have had from time to time, Fish Show seems to be an unpromising metropolitan satire, but it takes on a richer flavour when Fripp's imaginary restaurants start springing into existence as fast as he can dream them up. Either he has magic powers, or someone is pinching his ideas at incredible speed.

Delingpole enjoys himself most when he describes cookery, which is lucky, because that's what he does for most of the novel. The highlights of the first hundred pages are Fripp's hilariously perverse creations: the Roman- themed trattoria where Latin-speaking waiters serve flamingo tongues, and Cruel Cuisine, the temple of political incorrectness that specialises in fricasseed endangered species, and which changes menu daily, "partly to accommodate the ever-changing rarities chef has secured through his black-market contacts, partly to waste unrecycled paper".

Fish Show's closest relative is Stephen Fry's The Liar. It has that book's back-and-forth structure, its young-fogey hero, its boarding-school and varsity sequences, and the dose of mysticism, which leaves the reader guessing about what is real and what isn't. Fish Show isn't stocked with Fryish jokes, but it is always amusing, and towards the end it serves up a dizzying succession of bluffs, twists and, inevitably, red herrings. Good show. Nicholas Barber

Voices by Dacia Mariani (Serpent's Tail pounds 9.99). Radio journalist Signora Michela Canova returns from a refresher course to find her neighbour has been murdered. The very same day she is asked by her director at Radio Italia Viva to research a series on unpunished crimes against women. The two become inextricably linked and Canova finds herself forced to fight on her own to expose the truth behind her neighbour's murder, amidst a web of lies and deceit. As she sifts through pimps and prostitutes, stepfathers and estranged lovers, more and more new characters emerge to throw the reader off the scent.

Set in Rome, Dacia Mariani's latest novel is a lack-lustre murder mystery. It is frustratingly slow to begin with and though the pace quickens, the conclusion remains disappointing. The tension of the novel is almost entirely sacrificed in favour of Mariani's in-depth exploration of crimes against women.

Despite translation, voices remains steadfastly Italian, and though all Mariani's metaphors are a continual source of intrigue, that, unfortunately, is where the intrigue ends. Chloe Walker

The Glass Mountain by Martina Evans (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99). "Lecturers kept talking about how theories of physics were changing. As if I wanted to kill myself learning some theory that wouldn't be true next week." "Punks are supposed to support anarchy. That's why it's stupid, college students trying to be punks." "I think Carl knew what an existentialist was but I hadn't a clue." Maeve, as you see, is a university fresher. She's angsty but sweet, and she's the first-person narrator of this brilliantly observed book, set in Cork in the early 1980s, just as 2-Tone was taking over from punk.

The title is dull, the cover is terrible: are young women supposed to dig books that look like boxes of pastel tissues? But the novel itself is thoughtful and vivid: a spiritual pen-portrait which touches immaculately on exactly what it's like to be 18. Maeve's first ever sex scene is particularly nice: in a student pad, with all her clothes on, with the skinny, Joy Division-coated young man she had been - as you do at that age, if you're lucky - thinking up to that point was only her "best friend".

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