Bloomsbury, £12.99

As Far As You Can Go, by Lesley Glaister

Dangerous liaisons in the outback

Lesley Glaister's new novel is an erotic psychological thriller on a typically dark theme: how the power-trips and sexual games of the unscrupulous can trap the unsuspecting. She has created a literally stifling environment for her four protagonists: a disused sheep station on the edge of the Western Australian desert, miles from anywhere.

Lesley Glaister's new novel is an erotic psychological thriller on a typically dark theme: how the power-trips and sexual games of the unscrupulous can trap the unsuspecting. She has created a literally stifling environment for her four protagonists: a disused sheep station on the edge of the Western Australian desert, miles from anywhere.

Naive couple Cassie and Graham have come from England for a year as housekeeper- companions to an older couple, Larry and Mara. On arrival, they find they are completely cut off, with no telephone, no radio and a postal service that resembles the Bermuda Triangle. Sanitary arrangements are basic, the heat preposterous. Larry, a dapper old cove, mysteriously fragrant no matter how high the temperature, is deeply involved in his "work", something vaguely to do with pharmaceuticals. Mara, an artist, lives alone in a dark smelly shed, goes naked apart from heavy boots, and is kept sedated due to "phases", according to Larry, "when she is - out of sorts, shall we say".

Most of us would have been smelling several rats by now, but not Cassie and Graham. I couldn't help quibbling. Why didn't they check the place on a map before they left? Why didn't they ask about a phone number so their families could contact them? And, after travelling half way round the world to find themselves looking after a deeply disturbed woman in need of constant medication in the middle of nowhere, wouldn't they raise a few questions?

They would, but they don't, and such dopiness forfeits our sympathy. The plot demands such gullibility, but Cassie at least is not sufficiently developed to account for it. Larry is also superficial, sliding too hammily into perfect Villainese: "Possibly I should have explained a little more comprehensively," he oozes when Graham, discovering that he has to paint on Mara's naked body, finally demurs. By far the most appealing character, Graham is a weak-willed man struggling with the awful truth: "Either you die young or you grow old and die and he's already too old to die tragically young."

Glaister has written this kind of character before and does it extremely well. She's also skillful at depicting true oddballs. Mara, feral and childlike, is a painfully believable portrait of a woman living out a fractured reality. Her nakedness is a challenge but also vulnerable. Every sag and droop, everything down to the chair-marks printed on her buttocks, is recorded.

There is some fine writing here, wonderful little touches that linger, such as the goanna that lurks under the porch, its weird eyes watching everything. No one can mingle pathos and horror quite so effectively as Glaister at her best: a natural storyteller who knows how to keep the reader turning the pages with startling twists and cliff-hanging chapter endings. If only I could have believed any of it.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'Turn Again Home'(Virago)

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