Jungle of paper tigers

<i>In a Dark Wood</i> by Amanda Craig (Fourth Estate, &pound;16.99, 276pp)
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Amanda Craig's last novel, A Vicious Circle, was set in the world of London publishing and treated as a roman à clef. Even the best romans à clef can leave you wishing the characters had been locked up and the key thrown away. We know so much from magazines and papers about people now. A novel needs to do more than a profile or interview.

Amanda Craig's last novel, A Vicious Circle, was set in the world of London publishing and treated as a roman à clef. Even the best romans à clef can leave you wishing the characters had been locked up and the key thrown away. We know so much from magazines and papers about people now. A novel needs to do more than a profile or interview.

Two characters in this, her fourth novel are columnists. One has become a novelist. Her divorced husband, the narrator, says "just before she left me she had been writing a column about her life, in which I had featured largely as a neurotic layabout who spent all our money on absurdities and left her to cope with the ensuing disaster." There is no indication that In a Dark Wood is a roman à clef of any kind, but even a casual sentence like this highlights the way many contemporary novels employ a style more appropriate to magazine writing. There needs to be something about a book that justifies its greater longevity. If it is only the durability of the materials, then let's have done with the argument and put the whole lot on the web. The argument for durability should be an argument about writing, not materials. My main criticism of In A Dark Wood is that its narrator sounds like a journalist.

All the beats, the one-liners are there. The rhythm is slick, the voice one we know. It is comfort prose about a discomforting subject. That subject is divorce and breakdown.

Benedick Hunter has been abandoned by his wife, the former columnist turned novelist, who has taken their children, Cosmo and Flora, to live with her publisher in Notting Hill. He is an actor (there is no character whose job doesn't involve borrowing from others). This is his account of his slide into manic depression, and a classic Quest to discover why his own mother, Laura - an American illustrator and author of fairy tales - committed suicide when he was only six.

By the time he is writing, he has come out the other side. Primrose Hill, where he and his wife walk the children, is still there, and always will be. Maybe that explains why the voice is not disturbing or original. It just sounds as plaintive, self-pitying and unreasonable as the voice of anyone in Benedick's situation would be - attenuated by the ironic knowingness of hindsight.

Of the two children, Cosmo is the more damaged by the situation - although Craig makes it clear that children are often screens for displaying what is happening in the parent's head. Benedick takes Cosmo to America to track down Laura's family, with whom he has a catastrophic confrontation. Much of the book is taken up with readings from Laura's fairy tales, the illustrations for which featured her family and her own unhappy background.

It is straightforward Bruno Bettelheim psychology, which is all very well, but fairy stories are not mere ciphers either. They need a peculiar style for their message to bite through the page, or to linger in the ear. Their telling here conjures up the analyst's white walls, leaving the soggy smell of woods and adrenaline trapped in ink.

Craig is a perceptive and sympathetic observer of character, who cares about the plight of middle-class people and their inability to cut a straight path. But there is a muddle at the heart of the book, which comes from our familiarity with psychology and its vocabulary. There is a deep wood here, but it has been too slickly processed into paper.

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