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The Independent Culture
Jack Maggs by Peter Carey, Faber pounds 6.99. It seems only reasonable that a novel about theft should use a stolen plot. In Jack Maggs Carey has not only borrowed the outline of Great Expectations (plus a few apposite bits from Oliver Twist and elsewhere), he's also half-inched some of the facts of Dickens's life; the result is a work that's both original and, in more than one sense, mesmeric. Maggs, a transported thief, risks his neck to return to England in the hope of seeing the young man whose expectations he has raised. He falls in with Tobias Oates, a brilliant young novelist with a guilty fondness for his wife's sister and an interest in mesmerism, and their twin professions coil together in a way that is uncomfortable for both of them. The story is a meditation - though that's a calm word for such a jolting, racy read - on theft, pondering the question of who is the bigger thief: Maggs, who steals silver to convert into money, or Jones, who steals memories and secrets to convert into fiction? The themes are slotted in deftly, but what you really notice is the liveliness of language and the narrative's thunderous pace.

Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91 by Charles Nicholl, Vintage pounds 7.99. Nicholl travels around North Africa in Rimbaud's footsteps, trying to pick up traces of his life as a trader after he had renounced poetry at the age of 20. The two genres that combine here, literary biography and travelogue, both encourage a certain amount of imaginative reconstruction, and hard facts can sometimes get trampled in the rush. But in this fine book, Nicholl allows himself his imaginative flights - describing scenes nobody ever recorded, speculating as to his subject's state of mind, quite recklessly reading the life into the poetry - but he always makes sure the reader knows exactly what he's up to, what are facts and what is fancy. So the picture of Rimbaud he draws comes to seem concrete and real. This is how biography should be written.

The Prehistory of the Mind by Steven Mithen, Phoenix pounds 8.99. This is starting to get ludicrous: how many books on evolution and human intelligence do the publishers think the market will stand? Don't they know a glut when they see one? Not that this should be held against this archaeologist's view of the human brain - I'd go so far as to say, if you're going to read one book on evolutionary psychology this is the one. Mithen uses evidence from skeletons, flint tools and cave paintings to help construct his account of how and why our minds came to work the way they do. He postulates three stages: generalised intelligence; generalised intelligence supplemented by separate, specialised intelligences (for recognising different animals, getting on with other people, counting things, and so forth); and specialised intelligences working together, with information flowing freely between different bits of the mind. There are flaws - the central image of a cathedral with various chapels tacked on to the main nave makes damn-all sense - but the arguments and objections are set out clearly enough for you to make up your own mind (as it were).

Echoes of War by William Riviere, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Some heavy-hitting reviewers have given the thumbs up to this novel, and it's not hard to spot the qualities that impressed them: a family saga set in Norfolk, Italy and Burma in the Thirties and Forties, and portraying two generations of English gentry scarred by war. It has compassion and a tremendous historical sweep . The big but is Riviere's very dull prose, which is full of those little linguistic tics that you only find in English novels of a certain sort. When he does let himself go a bit, the results can be embarrassing: "Talking his way through Bobbie's engagement yesterday had been like eating a toad, Lammas apprehended with unseemly violence. And now was he going to have to go on crunching these slimy limbs, be nauseated again by the viscid gobbets touching his tonsils?" Otherwise, a very superior poolside read.

The Butterfly Effect by Pernille Rygg, Harvill pounds 5.99. Having struck gold with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Harvill evidently thought it had found a vein worth mining. So here we have another Scandinavian quasi- intellectual thriller, featuring another dogged, attractive heroine with a messy psyche, a deadpan prose style and a quirky sex life. (Remember that bit in Smilla about inserting her clitoris into the end of his penis? Most odd.) Where the operative cliche in Smilla was the one about eskimos having 50 different words for snow, here it's the chaos theory chestnut about the butterfly fluttering on one side of the world and causing a hurricane on the other; also, it's set in Norway rather than Denmark. Still, you can't help noticing the resemblance. Pretentious, complicated and not a little silly, but fine if you like that sort of thing.

Martin Rowson returns next week

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