Diana Evans has written a novel that is enjoyable on many levels. On the surface, it is about modern dance, about the young and beautiful and about love-affairs – one of them with London itself, vividly evolving from the 1960s to the present "purple Portobello evening".
But this follow-up to Evans's acclaimed debut, 26a, is also a serious work of art, with sentences like ribbons of silk winding around a skeleton of haunting imagery. A trained dancer, Evans (right) was born to write this novel, with its startlingly exact vignettes of dancers' bodies and understanding of the rhythms of rehearsal, the pain of performance and the knife-wounds of competition. Her story begins and ends with the next generation, the children of dancers. Denise and Lucas are young adults; Lucas in his uneasy mid-twenties, his sister slightly older.
They have lost their parents, Antoney, a brilliant choreographer, and Carla, a dancer. Bereaved too early by Antoney's desertion and Carla's death, the siblings have not managed to separate, and are still living a provisional life, sharing a huge bed in a houseboat near Paddington. It is as if they are sharing the womb, an echo of the twins at the centre of Evans's first book.
Denise is the practical, managing daughter, a florist who loves her work, protective but despairing of Lucas, her gauche drifter of a brother, who is "too old to be a work experience" on an alternative music magazine. Denise's way of dealing with the past is blocking it off, but Lucas dimly senses that he can never grow up until he finds who his father was. Through the magazine he interviews Edward Riley, an old critic writing Antoney's biography. One of the finest scenes is a tender, half-repressed homoerotic encounter between Riley and Antoney as young men. Evans dips from our present into Antoney's and Carla's youth dancing in the ground-breaking troupe, Midnight Ballet.
She makes her readers live the adrenalin-filled, amorous and fragile days of young dancers both joined and divided by the art they chose. Antoney longs for the perfection of Nijinsky's impossible leap, where just as the arc is about to descend, it soars higher. The "one" in the middle of his name points to the lonely drive that wrecks his relationship with Carla. Carla is a gifted dancer but has her feet on the ground and "steps lower" when she becomes pregnant with Antoney's babies. While Antoney's all-absorbing leap ends in a tragedy like Nijinsky's, Carla seems to turn away from dance and survive. But the book suggests that if you yield up the control you find in art, careless strangers can shatter you.
The Wonder's most central achievement is to explore what art means in human life. Through dance Evans is meditating on her own craft as a writer and on creativity as a whole, seen as self-realisation, as the naked "wonder", but also as something which can falter and destroy you. This second novel, both powerful and delicate, lacking in linear plot but rich in the poetry of human observation, proves that Evans has what she calls "the watch-me, the grace note" that marks a true artist.
Maggie Gee's latest novel is 'My Driver' (Telegram)