INDEPENDENT CHOICE; FIRST NOVELS

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The Independent Culture
If the Bekaa Valley is the site of the Garden of Eden, recent Lebanese history illustrates how hard it is to maintain paradise on earth. Do we even have any choice as to whether things go well or ill? These perennial questions underpin the vaulting complexity of Carl Gibeily's first novel, Blueprint for a Prophet (Doubleday, pounds 15.99).

The novel was written in English. Gibeily is Lebanese, a Maronite Christian who grew up with French as his first language and war as his boyhood experience before having to switch to England for the latter part of his education. This adaptability may explain the confidence with which Gibeily handles variety. Blueprint for a Prophet is an interleaving of different forms: realistic novel, thriller, history, work of science fiction and arcane divinatory text.

Jacob Haddad is the prophet, the link between human and divine. We first encounter him as a Jewish historian living in Beirut. He befriends and teaches Samir, his concierge's son, enabling him to become an archaeologist. Only later does it become clear that Jacob is also the one to whom an angel speaks at the beginning of each section of the book, and on whom alternative experiences of the future are bestowed.

In his quasi-divine role, Jacob brings Samir together with Maira, an English physicist whose theories about time lead her to an awareness of an extra-terrestrial influence on mankind. United, they represent the study of the past and the future.

The other main character is Khaled, the devil's agent. Brought up in a Hezbollah orphanage, he is a lost, unloved baby turned sadist and terrorist leader. By 2026, Khaled has become so powerful that the West is threatened and Armageddon looks inevitable. But then the angel allows another set of possibilities to emerge. The disasters whereby Khaled was lost are reversed: the bored militiaman does not shoot the parents, the baby is loved, there is hope.

In the crowd of ideas that make this such a rich novel, its stance on predetermination is not clear. But then, with the extra-terrestrial and agnostic element, clarity is not its strong point. Mundane as it sounds, the realism is. The loving writing about Samir in Beirut - the fruit growers in the hills, the Shiite grandee in the Bekaa, the little Maronite church where "an Anglican, a Greek Orthodox, and a Sunnite family had been caught while the Shiites were getting the shit bombed out of them by the Jews" - is what makes this ambitious novel immediate and enjoyable.

Hwee Hwee Tan and Ardashir Vakil are both debut novelists for whom the use of English stems from the elite nature of their education, in Singapore and India respectively. Tan soon brings up the question of language in her colloquial novel, Foreign Bodies (Michael Joseph, pounds 12.99). Andy, a young Englishman whose lack of grip will land him in a Singaporean jail, is being lectured by Mei - his girlfriend-cum-lawyer - on Singlish, the Singapore slang which mixes English words and Chinese grammar. It is not that she can't speak perfect English, but that she may choose not to. "Besides", as she bursts out, "who wants to talk like some O-level textbook, instead of using our own language, our home language, the language of our souls?"

After this rousing introduction, Singlish plays a disappointingly small part, but Tan's good ear for the spoken word is everywhere apparent. Her fast-paced story, which at first seems just flippant, develops into an attack on various forms of spiritual poverty; the secrets and lies of family life, the jargon of literary theory, the failure of Singaporeans to want anything beyond economic success for their children. Unexpectedly, given the streetwise tone, Tan's answer to this emptiness is Christianity. Neither Andy's conversion nor the sexual abuse from which Mei has suffered are convincing. But what is impressive, especially in so young a writer, is Tan's assurance, and her seriousness.

In that it reads like a loveletter to a Bombay boyhood, in particular the food, it seems right that Ardashir Vakil's mother should be the dedicatee of his Beach Boy (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99). The story starts when Cyrus, a Parsi, is eight. He swings into a life rich in fantasy, thanks to Hindi films, into a growing awareness of sex, and into the pleasures of eating. The family lives on Juhu beach; Cyrus has friends, things are good. Yet the dissolution of this idyll has already begun, in the growing ill-feeling between his parents. By the time Cyrus is ten everything has changed. This is a sensitive, touching account of how we have to leave childhood behind.

by Ruth Pavey

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