Arcadia £11.99 (199pp) £10.89 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Conversion, By Joseph Olshan

From Henry James via Mavis Gallant to Edmund White, stories about innocent Americans being undone by encounters with wicked Old Europe are a well-used literary trope. US writer Joseph Olshan seems well aware that his latest novel, The Conversion, sits on the tassel on the end of this tradition; he name-checks James early on. His plotting, however, is most unJamesian in its candour.

Russell, a writer, is in bed in a Paris hotel with his sort-of boy-friend, a famous, much older, poet, when armed intruders burst in. The poet sees them off but dies, presumably from shock. His traumatised companion is whisked off to Tuscany by an enigmatic older woman guest who just happens to be a prizewinning novelist with a palazzo outside Florence.

As Russell recuperates in style, aided by a fling with a godlike carabiniere, he can't resist reading the manuscript of his dead lover's memoirs. He and we learn some brutal truths about Russell's tortured affair with a wealthy married Frenchman and the part the jealous poet played in ensuring its demise. Should Russell hand over the manuscript to the poet's executrix, or burn it to save his own reputation? Should he return to the married man, whose American wife is suddenly prepared to connive at their ménage? Can he trust the worldly-wise advice of his hostess or does she have sinister motives of her own?

It's a far cry from The Aspern Papers, and far swifter moving, but the themes behind Olshan's plot – reputation, innocence, the fate of a manuscript and the effects of money – are Jamesian, as is the lingering evocation of the Tuscan palazzo. Where the work stumbles is in small errors of social register or fact. The windows of Paris's Sainte-Chapelle portray parables and Bible stories, not allegories. The catty French acronym BCBG would be translated better as the settled privilege of WASP than the still upwardly mobile Yuppie.

The Conversion promises a mystery, a thriller even, with its old house full of secrets, political terrorism and personal paranoia. This, and the way the touristic European setting tempts Olshan to lecture the reader in a faintly superior Baedeker style, is regrettable – for they come between him and his natural subject, which is damage and recovery. He wrote about these to great effect in Night Swimmer, which portrayed the wary edging-towards-intimacy of two men profoundly wounded by past loves. He touched on them again inVanitas, in which a bisexual ghost-writer is startled by a homoerotic drawing of a young man cradling a skull into confronting his conflicting needs.

In all three novels, Olshan frustratingly wants to set up some kind of mystery plot, often with a not terribly thrilling dénouement. His real strengths lie in his skill at mapping failed or failing relationships and his almost psychotherapeutic interest in the uncoiling of the tangle of guilt, inhibition and fear of emotional surrender that holds his protagonists back from happiness.

Patrick Gale's 'Notes from an Exhibition' is published by HarperPerennial

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'