A Book for All and None, By Clare Morgan

Access to their pants, but not their souls
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The Independent Culture

It takes confidence to depict an autumnal romance.

Raymond Greatorex is a sixtysomething academic, specialising, when he can be bothered, in Nietzsche. He spots fortysomething Beatrice Kopus, a Woolf scholar, in the street in Oxford, and they begin an affair. But Beatrice is already married to a wealthy business mogul called, bizarrely, Walter Cronk. He in turn has a mistress, the irritating Julie.

Beatrice is fascinated by Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, and by a formative trip she made alone to Manorbier in 1908. Raymond is drawn to the relationship between Nietzsche and Lou von Salomé. As their romance and research progress in tandem, suggestive links form between their two areas of expertise.

Set against Beatrice and Raymond's story is the more explosive one of Walter and his shady Kuwaiti business deals. It's frustrating for the reader to follow cliff-hangers with bathos, to go from "Mr Cronk? ... we have some news" to "Bernard Poche-Sanderson took to calling quite frequently". Beatrice and Raymond and their lukewarm relationship are just not that fascinating.

The story of Lou and Nietzsche's growing attraction, and its dire consequences for the philosopher, is far more successful. (It suggests why Raymond, at least, might fear intimacy.) Woolf, also, had a less than straightforward emotional life; the echoes with the restrained, composed Beatrice are compelling.

The novel is beautifully written. There are glimpses of the sensual particularity of Woolf, as when Raymond fixes up "a fresh brown loaf ... some slices of smoked salmon, a weighty wedge of Stilton, deep veined with grey and blue between its creaminess ... a rosy tomato that brought with it a heady sense of perfect ripeness."

A similar eye for concrete detail, but used to horrific effect, features in Walter's sub plot. Its thriller elements and evocation of global terror, while jarring, do at least undercut the complacency of the main story, suggesting that the security and comfort Raymond and Beatrice enjoy is wafer thin. However, the juxtaposition of Western civilisation – the freedom to read books and fornicate – and Islamic ignorance and dogmatism seems crude.

In general, the book feels overworked. Yet Morgan saves one marvellous trick until last. In the final pages she brings together Lou, Woolf, Nietzsche and Raymond's own family story with a flourish.

I was left thinking what Iris Murdoch would have done with this: how ridiculous yet touching she would have made the lovers, how exciting their intellectual quests, how threatening yet compelling the competing worldview of Walter and Julie. As it was, I couldn't quite be moved either by their studies or their love affair. Morgan has one questionable advantage over Woolf: a greater freedom to explore the ins and outs of sexuality. Although Morgan gets into her characters' pants, I'm not sure she has access to their souls. A formidable debut, nonetheless.