Stand-in for the real thing

MINUS TIME by Catherine Bush Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
HELEN URIE's mother Barbara has waited for this moment all her life: blast-off. The shuttle will dock with the space station on which Barbara intends to break the record for an uninterrupted stretch of time spent in space. She leaves behind her student daughter, her architect son Paul and separated husband David, who, when the count reaches zero and we have lift-off, is working on earthquake relief in Mexico. Helen and Paul, having decided not to turn up at the official family send-off for the astronauts, witness the launch from the roadside some miles away. When they check out the launch later on television, however, they see that stand-ins were found for the absent Urie family: an ersatz father and two kids dutifully waving goodbye.

If there's a problem with this premise, it's that it's too good. Having set up a perfect opportunity for a study of confused identities, Bush never really gets her teeth into the business, and the book turns into a heartfelt but slightly rambling account of what happens to a family when mother and father are both off doing ultra-demanding jobs. The switch between third- and Helen's first-person narration cleverly evokes a sense of the fracture of her personality, and of the hard choices she has to make, and Bush does create a sympathetic character in Helen - if you can overlook her misguided affection for the flaky Foster, her animal-rights activist boyfriend. And despite a tendency to overstress the environmental issues being raised, Bush's last chapter, like the first, is superbly done.