The novel isn't dead, it's just pretending

THE POPE'S RHINOCEROS by Lawrence Norfolk Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15. 99
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That hardy perennial, the Death of the Novel, is with us again. V S Naipaul, it seems, has better things to do than read fiction. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the kids also feel that life is just too short. "You mean linear reading?" asks a member of the point-and-click generation quoted in this month's Harper's. "Like when you read a book from start to finish?"

Yet somehow novels keep being written, and in some cases even read. Lawrence Norfolk is one of the worst offenders in this regard. A mere four years after his debut with the award-winning Lempriere's Dictionary, here he is again with a massive offering which is not only blatantly fictional but clearly intended to be read from start to finish. Worse, far from showing promising signs of rigor mortis, the result is a spellbinding entertainment which can only confirm novel-readers in their unfortunate addiction: richly imagined, painstakingly researched, superbly paced and utterly gripping.

Spurning both the "magical" special effects department and the arch minimalism which Eric Korn has termed "the Higher Nerdery", Norfolk brings together such apparently disparate elements as a remote monastery on a Baltic island, the young vagabond Salvestro whose mother was drowned as a witch, a mythical undersea city, the horrors attending the sack of Prato by the Spanish in 1512, an African princess sold into slavery, a miracle-working child, the intrigues and inanity of the court of Pope Leo X, and, of course, the eponymous (and potentially apocryphal) rhinoceros.

To say more would risk compromising what is, apart from anything else, an immensely sly, accomplished and satisfying feat of storytelling which continually threatens to disintegrate into picaresque anecdotalism, only to come together like a gigantic jigsaw as pieces which had seemed to be missing finally emerge. A further centripetal force is applied by the prose itself, leisurely pages of densely imagined description so rich that one is cruelly torn between a desire to savour every word and rush on to find out what happens next.

Norfolk is particularly adept at skewing the point of view in some unexpected direction, notably that of anthropomorphised (but by no means Disneyesque) animals. In a world where human behaviour rarely rises much above the bestial, it seems perfectly apt that one of the great set-pieces in a book full of them should be an account of the war between two clans of rats when a corridor is constructed between a Roman palace and the adjoining church. It is a measure of the book's riches that its stunning recreation of life in 16th-century Rome seems almost incidental. The maritime scenes, too, are classics of their kind, while both the Baltic and African landscapes are evoked with mastery. The themes of drowning, of submersion and erosion, are fundamental to this very watery book, a fictional littoral where life is always lived on the edge.

But the beating heart of the narrative is to be found in the adventures of Salvestro (not his real name) and his dependent protector, the gentle giant Bernardo. Lawrence Norfolk not only cares about this unlikely pair living a precarious existence under imminent sentence of death, he makes the reader care too. And you have to love a writer who, after pages of vigorously precise prose which will send most people scurrying for the dictionary, is not too proud to use a line like "Don't worry Bernardo! We've been in worse scrapes than this, haven't we?" It's hard to imagine wishing a closely-printed 600-page book any longer, but The Pope's Rhinoceros feels less like a book than an alternative but fully recognisable world which you enter with glee and trepidation, and are ungratefully resentful at having to leave. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the novel's dead - and I'm Queen Marie of Roumania.