Lost in the foreign country of the past

Quick Bright Things by Keith Ovenden (Hamish Hamilton, £15.99, 297pp)
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The Independent Culture

This novel's narrator, Alice Crighton, makes a startling statement: "I always believed that the past was a dead place, really, something, or somewhere, that we couldn't do anything to so wasn't worth worrying about." Alice is a banker - busy, high-achieving - and comes across as competent, confident but short on imaginative response. Her lack of perception about the past would seem a crippling disability; the book's dénouement is to see her, in a sense, get her comeuppance and find "the ground of the past shifting."

Quick Bright Things is in effect a reverse account of the central figure of Keith Ovenden's earlier novel The Greatest Sorrow: Alice's husband Philip Leroux, a philosopher. The blurb describes it as "a self-contained sequel", though probably both novels come across more effectively in conjunction. The Oxford setting of the first winds in and out of the second, of which such action as there is takes place in the French countryside.

Philip is recently dead; Alice has been loaned a house in which to gather her thoughts and go through Philip's papers. Here in the Sologne, past events come stalking back. The union between Philip and Alice seemed unlikely: a fin-de-siÿcle yuppy and a tormented intellectual. Both, it has to be said, equally unappealing, though Philip's personality is qualified by complexity. He is - or was - sardonic, obsessive and self-absorbed, his conversation nicely nailed in his introduction of his mother-in-law as "indicative of a completely unanticipated social development, a Scottish intellectual renaissance".

He's an arrogant academic, but imbued with fatal self-doubt. It would seem that Alice loved him and that her apparent absence of grief in the wake of his death in a car accident is a manifestation of character. Alice is as cool as they come: "I found myself feeling melancholy, which is rare for me," she can say, a widow of six months. She says that she has not been able to mourn him properly. Well, no. As a reflection of bereavement, either the character or writing is seriously deficient.

The narrative turns on Alice's discovery of a manuscript by Philip, which appears to be a fictional account of adolescent experience with a group of French friends. The boys and girls, les gosses, are spending a weekend with one of the girls. Initially, all goes well; the gang fool about, joke, pair off. The host parents are indulgent and amused. Then takes place the planned pyjama party, and all hell breaks loose. There is drunkenness, violence, injury. And sex, of course. Philip - known as "English" - is caught on the brink of consummation by the hostess, whose tolerance runs out. A young servant girl has been drawn in, with far-reaching consequences. The triumvirate of boys is packed off home in disgrace.

The stultifying self-regard of adolescence is effectively done. The boys are pretty insufferable, too clever by half - Philip most of all, displaying in embryo all his future attributes. As a piece of self-analysis, the version Alice reads is powerful. As a version of the past, it is less reliable, and the eventual revelation of its manipulations and inaccuracies is by far the strongest element of the novel, giving shape to what had seemed a formless meditation.

There is a satisfying kick to the end, which is just as well, because another aspect has been baffling. This is Alice's involvement with a drink-sodden elderly former rock star, a woman she discovers living near to the loaned French house. Alice befriends the louche and unlovable Bix, and seems all set to continue this peculiar liaison.

She says that she doesn't know why - "it was just something that drew me in" - and the reader is left with no further insight. The whole episode seems a misconceived distraction from the driving themes of conflicting evidence and the recalcitrant past, which are quite strong enough to sustain the book.