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Canarino by Katherine Bucknell

Skilled disdain from the ravenous Snow Queen




Canarino is a drink, of sorts. It is made by pouring boiling water on to a twist of lemon peel: it has no nutritious or calorific value and very little taste. Its purpose is merely to prolong the moment for those who want nothing, ever, to change and it is the favourite drink of Mrs David Judd.

This is how Elizabeth chooses to define herself on the gilded plaque attached to the vast portrait she gives her husband on their 10th anniversary. "Mrs David Judd and Her Children", a pigeon pair of blond cherubs, pose in classical style, stately and demure, high on the wall above an exquisite Louis Quinze sofa. A few days after its hanging in their London flat, a man arrives to distress the frame, for Elizabeth, implacably fastidious, considers it a little too bold.

Elizabeth is closely related to the Snow Queen. Pale, blonde and bony, her voice is "like the Arctic, unmarked, endless, frozen"; her eyes may glitter "like fabulous slivers of blue ice" but within them is to be discovered only "a vast waste of boredom". She is skilled at expressing disdain. In the ravenous night, she might wolf down wine and biscuits, cheese and strawberries but in public she will modestly and quietly request simple grilled fish (whether it is on the menu or not), send it back to have buttery potatoes removed from the plate and then merely toy with it a little, sighing. And she will probably order a canarino.

She is a wife to be treated with caution, circumspection and respect but her husband needs more comfort than she is prepared to offer. On the face of it, the subsequent unravelling is banal. An American investment banker, married to this increasingly distant and frigid woman, succumbs to the charms of a beautiful, dark and brilliant colleague. When the affair is discovered, he tries to placate his wife by agreeing to her every demand only to find himself skilfully and unpredictably outmanoeuvred, his family and career efficiently removed from him and his oldest friends estranged. Such tabloid débâcles, we may think wearily, happen every day.

Yet there is nothing commonplace about this remarkably vigorous and subtle first novel: it is written with commanding authority and is impressively accomplished. The plotting is bold and alluring, playing with time and place and moving between an echoing Belgravia flat, a seedy Pittsburgh hotel, a sunny sandy holiday in white-timbered Nantucket and a very disturbingly sterile and hostile estate in Virginia. The characters - even the monstrous Elizabeth - are vividly realised, forensically examined: we may not like what they do, but we certainly understand why they do it. The children, wary with their frightening mother, freely joyous with their father, are beautifully observed in their innocent apprehension. The writing throughout is spare and punctilious: the narrative tension increases almost unbearably towards the end and the final sentence is a tiny coda, exquisitely bathetic and cold as permafrost.

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