Paperbacks: Cockeyed: A Memoir<br/>Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction<br/>Plato's Republic: A Biography<br/>The Mission Song<br/>At the Edge of Light

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The Independent Culture

Cockeyed: A Memoir, by Ryan Knighton (Atlantic £8.99)

How can you find images for creeping blindness? The answer seems self-evident – you can't. Ryan Knighton pushes this obvious but elusive point into the reader's head until it hurts. Then, like the best kind of trainer, he shows how he does it.

His beloved uncle is the first to note that Ryan has become "cock-eyed". Ryan duly notes this and duly disguises it. This pattern of denial continues. Prangs coalesce, jobs are lost. Night vision goes, tunnel vision dwindles. His girlfriend, Tracy, understands, and indeed becomes "an extension of my body". First, however, Ryan must accept that white cane.

At "Gimp Camp", as Knighton dubs it, the author learns to conquer his fear of blind people. He introduces us to the wonderful Seamus, whose mind, stuck at age six, prompts his tongue to comment joyously on everything around him. Many find him irritating, but "Seamus did it for all of us. Seamus looked around with words."

Knighton meets in New Orleans a swindler embarrassed about swindling him, and two muggers who are mortified once they clock his blindness. But just as you let out a sigh of relief at humanity reasserting itself, Knighton points out the inequity: "Discrimination feels like discrimination, even when it's for the best."

He gives no quarter to the myth that with the loss of sight the other senses magically compensate. In one painful passage he describes hearing a barking dog. Tracy is full of compassion and imagination, but then she can see it. "I hear a dog bark. It is a dog and it is barking, and it is outside somewhere. End of story."

It is perhaps unhelpful to call an author humble, but it's unavoidable. In this book, tragedy faces self-pity down again and again. The result is funny, graceful and wise. I've never read anything like this.

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, by Alison MacLeod (Penguin £8.99)

The commonplace "mixed bag" might have been coined for this short story collection. The best thing you can say about "The Knowledge of Penises" is that it doesn't contravene the Trades Descriptions Act. This tale of a woman whom even small boys feel the need to flash at is caked with cloying lyricism and smudged with too much information.

"Dirty Weekend", on the other hand, fails to meet the demands of its title, and we should be glad. Two lovers go to Paris: they play and concoct fantasies about those around them. Later the man is dying of cancer but still proudly repeating the grand, sweet myths of their early love.

MacLeod's email version of the story of Heloise and Abelard looks initially like a paraphrase of their letters. Then the modern world breaks into the narrative and the effect is comic and unsettling.

In "Sacred Heart", Naomi "can never really imagine old people any younger than they are," so what is she to do when a man she rescued from death summons her to his hospital bed? Her boyfriend is an inadvertent casualty of this; so are other things.

Plato's Republic: A Biography, by Simon Blackburn (Atlantic £7.99)

In an unhappy hour did Simon Blackburn call Plato "a grumpy old man". He has given a lot of space to Plato's most famous contribution to western philosophy, but he clearly has little time for it. The grumpy old man here is Blackburn. He loathes Plato.

But, as he points out in his introduction, this lack of sympathy need not hinder appreciation. A scientific sceptic, Blackburn is surprisingly generous to the Christian and Romantic interpretations of Republic, as he calls it, continually reminding us that this seemingly authoritarian – indeed, totalitarian – utopia can also be read as an analogue for the ideal soul. He also alerts us to the fact that hierarchy doesn't equal fascism. Famously, Plato wanted no artists in his republic, but Blackburn points out that for artist we should perhaps read "spin doctor".

Blackburn goes on about Plato's obscurity and vagueness, and I couldn't suppress a snort: there is far too much of both in his own analysis. And he doesn't need to make so many cute contemporary references. We can form our own opinions about religious fundamentalism or American foreign policy, thanks.

The Mission Song, by John le Carré (Hodder £6.99)

The part-Congolese son of an errant priest, Bruno Salvador is an interpreter who hides his exotic roots in a garment of professional respectability. Not all is well with his marriage, but in general he's sitting pretty.

Then comes love in the shape of a Congolese nurse called Hannah, and a summons to a secret meeting. The meeting's conclusion concerning East Congo is that while democracy is all very well, in this instance it will bring chaos not peace. What is needed is a coup, led by the right kind of chap, one sympathetic to western corporate and political interests. The morality of this is dodgy enough, but the real agenda is even nastier. Salvo is forced to graduate from interpreter to spy to agonised freedom fighter.

As a tale of conscience gasping for air The Mission Song is hugely successful. Even in its more reflective moments, it bowls you along with efficiency and grace. The love affair with Hannah carries, perhaps, more symbolic than psychological conviction, and few characters are very deeply etched, but then this is not primarily a tale of characters but of their choices. As such, it is chillingly persuasive.

At the Edge of Light, by Maria Peura (Maia £8.99)

Halfway through this tale of love in a Finnish village its narrator, Kristina, offers this plaint: "Too few people died around me." The reader must beg to differ. Corpses, especially those of suicides, proliferate on an almost industrial scale. Tragedy is the dominant note, yet as its title promises, this book is suffused with light: the bright light of the Finnish North, and the piercing light of Kristina's own extraordinary imagination.

Kristina's village has, as she puts it, "a tender soul", which is to say it doesn't like being ruffled. Kristina herself is so tender as to be almost porous. The child of a philanderer and a depressive, she is drawn to the people in the "Flats", the Lapps and social castaways, and particularly to Kari, loving but feral, terrified of the devil who possesses him.

The prose is heightened and allusive, often to the point of obscurity. Peura's images have a way of setting up house on their own: close attention to the details of plot is not always well repaid. But this remains a haunting and inspiring story, full of humour, poetry and a fine sense of the macabre.

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