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What came after `A'

PEARL: A Romance by Christopher Bigsby, Weidenfeld pounds 15.99
THIS sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter claims to be free-standing, but such is Christopher Bigsby's sophisticated consideration of the relationship between his own novel and its literary antecedent that a familiarity with Hawthorne is essential.

Pearl, the daughter of scarlet-lettered Hester Prynne, leaves her home in Boston and boards ship for England. Her objectives are simple: to escape from the stigma of her past, and to secure a new future by claiming her inheritance. But her task is soon frustrated by legal duplicities, amorous distractions and toxic beverages.

Everything in this book has its complications. Standard landmarks of society - facts, rights, and values - are obscured by a cloud of equivocation. Pearl is told that the deep holes on the approach to Norwich lead to disused chalk-pits, dug to provide building materials for the city. When it rains, the pits fill with water, threatening the very buildings they helped to establish. Image after image confounds initial appearances. Above all, the instant judgements we make about other people are nearly always off the mark.

But if looks can deceive, they can also contain hidden truths. Pearl discovers this when she tries to paint over a portrait she dislikes, and finds that its features refuse to be transmuted. How can we tell if an image is true or false? Or is there no distinction, save in our own minds? It is this uncertainty which characterises Pearl's inheritance from Hawthorne. Bigsby naturally develops his own authorial style and interests, but his indebtedness to the complex symbolism and philosophy of The Scarlet Letter is always apparent. This is a book about what it is like "come after", to "inherit", to "descend from". It is, in other words, a sequel about sequels.

Not surprisingly, as a 20th-century appraisal of a 19th-century view of the 17th century, the narration is acutely self-conscious. It is here that doubts creep in: there are a few too many references to page-turning and story-telling, and the first third of the book is filled with symbols which Bigsby cannot stop himself from explaining. The tendency to read between his own lines compromises the immediacy of his writing.

When the narrator gets the better of the literary critic, Pearl rollicks along superbly. There are thundery Gothic set-pieces, and an enjoyable camp exuberance to the description of a London boarding-house. But Bigsby, like his protagonist, cannot break free from his forebear. The very ambiguity of Pearl's status - is it derivative or original? criticism or art? - signals its comprehension of Hawthorne's message. Most sequels have to apologise for their secondary status, but Bigsby's occasionally tricksy, mostly felicitous, extension of The Scarlet Letter is both a distinctive pastiche of romantic fiction and a finely constructed essay in literary filiation.