Breakdowns along the hard road to freedom

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (Heinemann, £15.99, 365pp)
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The Independent Culture

This is a novel about the dispossessed. Behrani, once a high-ranking colonel in the Shah's airforce, fled to America after the Iranian revolution. In San Francisco, he leads a double life, working in a road-cleaning crew during the day, changing his clothes before he returns to his posh apartment.

Years of maintaining an affluent lifestyle to impress the wealthy expatriate Iranian community and secure his daughter's marriage have left him with little money and much despair. He sees only one opportunity; he will invest his remaining cash in the buoyant American property market. But the house he buys cheap at an auction has been seized from Kathy Nicolo, a young woman whose life has never been her own. A former addict and alcoholic, she has always been waiting "for Death to come take me the way the wind does a dried leaf out on a limb". Deprived of her father's house by a tax office mistake, she spends her days cleaning others' homes and searching for a way back to her own. Her husband has left, her mother and brother see her as a problem child, and Berhani will only sell back her house at four times the original price.

When Deputy Sheriff Burdon, one of the policemen who comes to evict her, takes an interest in her, she cannot resist. Burdon's respectable life with two children, suburban house and promising career cloaks his dissatisfaction with his marriage and a neediness which dates back to his parents' divorce. Kathy becomes all the women he has ever tried to save. Her beauty reminds him of his first love, a Chicana girl dragged from him by her brutal brother. But Burdon's righteous anger, born out of the bullying he endured from Chicanos because he was one of the few Anglos in his school, leads him to threaten and then imprison the Behranis.

This seems an improbable story, or at least a contrived tragedy shaped by revelations. Behrani realises that he could not work for the Shah without being implicated in torture and murder. Kathy learns that she has always allowed others to define her. Burdon understands that he is still the fearful child trying to get back at his enemies. They share the unease of emigrants who never quite belong: Behrani fled the rage of his own people, Burdon escaped his impoverished childhood in a town on the Mexican border, Kathy came from the tired East Coast to a land of "milk and honey" her friend warned her might turn sour.

Dubus writes through several voices yet he never lets the narrative unravel. House of Sand and Fog reads almost like a relay race, with characters picking up the story from each other. The narrative falters in the sections devoted to the star-crossed lovers; Kathy, the victim whose anger always turns against herself, is too passive to care about, while Burdon is just not credible.

But Dubus's style, lyrical yet forceful, strong yet sensitive, carries the novel over these weaknesses. He writes particulary well about the characters' sense of impermanence; the volcanic city with its fog alternativelylifting and descending becomes a kind of chorus, the house which changes owners in a day a portent.

Yet it is not the images which are most memorable, nor the urgency of the plot, but Behrani's struggle to define himself in a land of becoming.