In Another Light by Andrew Greig

Love and loss in Orkney and Penang
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In Another Light is about the imminence of death. Andrew Greig's mind has been concentrated by his own recent near-death experience, and in his fifth novel he has chosen as his central character Eddie MacKay, a sensitive but defensive Scot. Following the death of his father and his own near-fatal brain operation, Eddie has taken a temporary position on a renewable-energy project in Orkney. Locked into a mid-life wrestling match with his mortal state, Eddie also becomes engrossed in unearthing the story of his father's life as a young doctor in colonial Malaya in 1930.

Moved by his mother's revelation that his father had been forced to leave Malaya following an illicit affair, Eddie turns detective and tracks down an old woman who observed his father's story. At the same time, Greig explores Eddie's relationship with the free-spirited Mica, a finely-drawn character whose tough exterior hides vulnerability.

From wild, windswept Orkney we are constantly plunged into the lushness of the tropics. Penang in the declining years of empire is skilfully recreated: bluff colonials down their stengahs in cool billiard rooms, while outside the jungle steams, along with the emotions of the reserved Scottish doctor as he encounters passion for the first time.

These two stories run together. Although 70 years and half a world separate them, Greig succeeds in making the strands weave in and out with considerable grace, though he loses it somewhat towards the end when he inserts an unnecessary twist in the tail.

Until then, he pulls off a difficult double act, vividly evoking both worlds. Whether it's the Northern Lights or a cloud of yellow butterflies rising through the jungle, the descriptions are sensual. A kind of stealthy pantheism is abroad in the book.

Death unites both stories. Eddie has missed it by inches. A character in the Malaya story lives with shrapnel in his head. The truth is reinforced that, no matter how great that forbidden passion, or how brightly the characters shone, the story is over and they are all dead. This is serious stuff, but Greig ends on a note of hope and faith in the present. As Mervyn Peake wrote, "To live at all is miracle enough."

Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Turn Again Home' (Virago)