PAPERBACKS

Dared & Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning by Julia Markus, Bloomsbury pounds 9.99. Eloping in the teeth of Mr Barrett's threat to disinherit any of his 12 children if they ever married, the Brownings were unsure how to define Elizabeth when announcing the event. Should it be "... of Wimpole St" alone or (in addition) "of Cinnamon Hill, Jamaica", this being the address of her father's father, one of the largest sugar-planters in the West Indies? Markus attributes the father's peculiar and obnoxious ban to his fear that evidence of miscegenation ("black blood" was quite usual in slave-owning families) would emerge in the next generation. It's an interesting line of enquiry which requires more elaboration. We do not learn what exactly, in the context of the 19th century's shifting attitudes about race, the old man was afraid of - social shame? genetic "throwback"? This generally well-informed account, which presents new material particularly on Elizabeth's friendship with the spiritualist Sophie Eckley, sees the Browning marriage mostly through her eyes.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Faber pounds 7.99. Before reading this novel it's wise to shed any illusions about the timeless spirituality of India, because Mistry's is a very different subcontinent, where meditation offers scant comfort in the intense struggle for survival. The teeming mass of the poor, with whom this novel concerns itself, is shamelessly exploited, bullied, tortured and killed in the interests of the greedy rich. Telling the story of four characters, a widow, the two tailors she employs and the student who lodges with her, the novelist rejects Salman Rushdie's magic in favour of Balzacian realism: the only magic in these lives is friendship, humour and courage. Otherwise, the ruling element is chance - cruel or happy as it may be - amidst the carefully referenced political conditions of Partition, the caste system and in particular Indira Gandhi's Emergency of 1975, which so scorched and blistered Delhi's thin coat of democratic paint. Mistry is too subtle to make an overt political statement but this second novel, which, like his first, was deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is actually a quasi-Marxist critique.

The Spears of Twilight: Life & Death in the Amazon Jungle by Philippe Descola, Flamingo pounds 8.99. The way of life of the Achuar people, who inhabit a section of Ecuadorian Amazonia, is still a few hundred miles out of reach of the destruction which creeps daily nearer. Descola, a French anthropologist, and his partner Anne Christine, spent two years among this strange tribe of individualists, who have no sense of territorial or historical mission, no nationalism and hardly any apparatus of social control. If wronged, they embark openly on personal vendettas, with headshrinking at the end of it. But most impressive to Descola was their relation to time, which is radically different from anything we understand. They have few myths, they don't remember the dead and display hardly any interest in anything but the present and immediate future. The anthropologist's ordeal, glimpsed when he lets his objectivity slip from time to time, must have been formidable. The resulting book is an epic account of a perfectly practicable sort of anarchism.

Robert Graves: Life on the Edge by Miranda Seymour, Doubleday pounds 9.99. Undoubtedly brave, wholehearted, prolific and vivacious, Graves could also be brash, inconsistent, whimsical, naive, ridiculous, even abject. But the poet maintained a sense of underlying grace and purpose and this, perhaps, enabled him to keep his lifelong balance "on the edge". There were many edges. At the Western Front, Captain Graves was reported dead but came back; he married and remarried, enslaving himself meanwhile to a tyrannical mistress, Laura Riding. He flirted with hero-worship, intellectual heresy, teenage girls, bankruptcy and confidence tricksters while sticking doggedly to the daily discipline of the professional writer in voluntary semi-exile. Although disappointingly thin on the First World War, this is otherwise an excellent biography, at ease with its subject, never starry- eyed, yet alive to the epic possibilities of the story.

A Stranger in This World by Kevin Canty, Penguin pounds 6.99. Canty's stories are set in an America that ranges from working-class trailer parks and truck-stops to the better-off tree-lined suburbs and country clubs. Typically, they also inhabit the messed-up sexual psyche of insecure young males in the brightly lit but morally dangerous world of a film like Wild at Heart, for there is a strong sense of sin here. Wading in a morass of unwholesome desires, the characters are always aware of right and wrong yet still choose to do wrong. In one story, a poolside lifesaver, a voyeur behind his reflecting shades, comes close to committing rape. In another, a man whose deliberate courting of danger leads to the maiming of a woman he's casually sleeping with. And in one of the most painful stories, a teenager abuses a mentally defective girl. The author has a strong but never strident voice in these parables about personal responsibility.

Eastern Sun, Winter Moon by Gary Paulsen, Indigo pounds 6.99. Refusing to be deflected by sentimentality or to flinch at pain and deceit, Paulsen, a well-known American children's writer, here remembers a four-year stretch of his own 1940s childhood. His father is away at the war, his mother working late shifts at a munitions factory, and he grows up semi-deprived in a two-room Chicago apartment. Later the father he has never known sends for them and, after a hair-raising voyage across the Pacific, they join him in Manila where a quite different life as part of an occupying force begins. Too close not to have his eyes open to the gross and petty imperfections of adults, the child sees many things he shouldn't: his mother having sex with a stranger in the living-room, survivors of a ditched plane being torn apart by sharks, a sheet of metal flying on a hurricane in the Philippines and cutting a man in half. His father remains a dangerous shadow in the background, but Paulsen's portrait of his mother, beautiful, strong-willed, impulsive, generous and probably alcoholic, is one of the many memorable things in an extraordinary and riveting book.

In the last few decades, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh has gone from virtual oblivion to become one of the most influential figures in modern design. Yet, as Elizabeth Wilhide points out in The Mackintosh Style (Pavilion pounds 14.99), his career was tantalisingly incomplete, and he ended up restricting himself to watercolour painting. Above: one of a pair of embroidered panels (1902); designed by Mackintosh's wife, they were dubbed "the skinny ladies" by the client's children.

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