The Woman in the Picture by James Wilson

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The Independent Culture

Plenty of plotlines rely on coincidences. But James Wilson's latest novel positively teems with them. Characters run into each other in the most unexpected places; find themselves on streets with the same names, hundreds of miles - and years - apart; discover the secrets of lost loves through chance conversations. Small wonder, then, that one of Wilson's main players, looking back at his life to date, doesn't find the word "coincidence" even begins to cover it: "something else seems to be at work here, something we don't have a term for..." And that belief is his undoing.

Henry Whitaker, a young Cambridge graduate, lost his father in the First World War. The launch of his film-making career in the 1920s owes a lot to a macabre story, that of a young man searching a German town for the fiancée left behind by a dead soldier. This soldier was killed by the young man's father. The story is Whitaker's own and its quirks and twists typify his treatment at the hands of fate throughout the novel.

Set against Henry's progress through the film world of the 1920s and Thirties is the present-day narrative of his daughter, Miranda - a less than loyal offspring. She holds her father responsible for the suicide of her mother, a German refugee from the Second World War. But her version of events is tested by an academic set on rescuing Whitaker, a neglected hero of British documentary-making, both from critical indifference and from Miranda's slanderous assertions.

Occasionally, Wilson's narrative snags a little on celluloid history - the Cinematograph Films Act, the coming of sound, the quota quickie, are all discussed by his characters in over-explicatory fashion - but his fictional films are so vividly imagined that you feel you must have seen them. Whitaker's struggle to bring the sufferings of the dockers during the Depression to the cinema screen is intensely moving.

Eventually though, his film-making career unravels in the face of a growing preoccupation with signs and symbols. A trip to a Surrealist art exhibition in 1936 doesn't help. "The marvellous, the hasard objectif, can erupt anywhere," a fellow art-lover tells him; a theory which bears poisonous fruit later when Whitaker discovers a living, breathing example in the shape of a strange woman staring out of the frame of one of his own documentaries.

Wilson is known for his historical fiction. This is the first novel in which he has tackled the present-day, and it is the contemporary sections which are the least satisfying here. There are small niggles - how many emails do you get that repeatedly feature italic script? - but it's the character of Miranda, and her relationship with another orphaned daughter in the novel, that doesn't always convince, something that undermines the book's ending. But Wilson has created - in its ambition, as well as in its evocation of a studio system and a cinema long gone - a novel which rivals William Boyd's magisterial The New Confessions and which may even, dare I say it, be a lot more fun to read.