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Catch, By Simon Robson

A few slips, but plenty of edge

The Separate Heart was actor Simon Robson's dramatic first foray into fiction. Its ten meaty stories offered plenty of emotional depth, with a mature combination of exuberant plotting and delicacy of feeling. The common thread was a powerful sense of common humanity and the need for reciprocity. Open your heart, Robson seemed to entreat, concluding most tales with a life-changing moment of self-awareness.

Precisely this emphasis permeates Catch, Robson's debut novel. This courageous and well-crafted but uneven work unpicks a woman's self-possession and engagement with society over the course of a traumatic day. Catharine's husband, Tom, a human-rights lawyer, is away overnight for the first time since their move to the country. Catharine wakes alone and begins fretting, mostly about her childlessness at 38; and her purpose in life, as Tom's domestic helpmeet without, it seems, any ambition or career beyond yearned-for motherhood.

Since the realisation that her passion for music would never make her a competent musician, Catharine has drifted, buoyed up by a sense of aloofness and a vigorous refusal to allow any ostentation to infect her meek behaviour. This presents a mighty challenge for a novelist: sustaining interest in an intense, perfumed meditation by a pallid protagonist.

Robson's theatre heritage injected vigour into his stories, whose few more numinous digressions proved more uncertain territory. But such digressions are the substance of Catch. It's as though Robson conceived of Catharine as a monologue but, confined to the page, her thoughts lack the edginess a stage presence might confer.

As the day progresses, she is drawn into encounters with other villagers, but these dialogues burst into her self-absorption with a sort of gigantism seemingly deployed to batter her confidence.

Catharine's weathering of her dearly purchased self-awareness remains more residual than cathartic. Yet this is still a potent work, clear evidence of a promising talent.