Shampoo and car crashes

THE PRIMITIVE Stephen Amidon Gollancz £14.99
That Stephen Amidon should be preparing a script treatment of his previous novel, Thirst, will not surprise anyone who reads his current offering: this is a writer with a largely cinematic imagination, one for whom a "popular, accessible and meaningful" story is, as he himself wrote in a recent essay, the dynamic of fiction.

The enabling mechanism of the book is, in good Hollywood tradition, a road accident. David Webster's best years are behind him: his marriage is shaky, his child has died and he finds little fulfilment in his work as a copywriter. One day, while out driving, he carelessly collides with a car driven by Sara. Because she is hurt, David follows her to hospital, only to find her in a coma. She fleetingly opens her eyes and smiles. The next day she disappears, but resurfaces soon afterwards outside David's office. Intrigued, he takes her to a hotel; later, lured by her oddity and her silences, he finds her a room in town, without telling his wife. As David becomes increasingly obsessed with Sara, the story of her strange and difficult past unfurls, forcing him to re- evaluate his profoundest beliefs.

This is all fine and interesting, but the weakness of the novel lies in Amidon's narrative voice. He is fatally addicted to overstatement, refusing to leave his characters alone. He forces them to speak aloud in order to reveal their motivation. This is a typical sentence: "Man, what the fuck are you going to do? David asked himself out loud." Yet when Amidon relaxes his stranglehold on the story, and steps back from the action, the novel breathes.

Suddenly, there is room and time enough for the characters to move independently. There is for instance, a lovely moment of tenderness when, early in their relationship, David washes Sara's hair. Her warm, serious voice, tinged with sadness, delights him. He moves towards her and pulls her into an embrace. The tension between them crackles like a wire; we know that he desires her.

This is the best moment of the novel precisely because Amidon withdraws from it and refuses to editorialise - and, consequently, we can respond to the lovers' inchoate sexual stirrings. Here the meaning is, for once, implicit in the gaps, the suspensions and omissions of the text, reminding us of the power of what Willa Cather called "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it".

Jason Cowley

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