Books: Controlling interest

Mary Flanagan enjoys a tale told by an omniscient author; A Widow For One Year by John Irving Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99
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Every major character in John Irving's latest novel is defined and developed via their writing. Nearly all are famous and rich. They attend posh schools, fly Concorde, stay at the Connaught, taking money for granted in heedless American style. They read from their work and treat us to dissertations on the novel. But the book is no product of dry intellect. Life reflects art, which in turn reflects life: a complex symbiosis persuasively sustained over 600 pages. This is also a love story with anguished separations, touching reunions and lots of sex.

Ted Cole is an acclaimed children's author whose stories are adored for their sinister content. Everyone has been influenced by them. Meanwhile, he makes pornographic drawings of the young mothers whom he ruthlessly seduces. He is a control freak, a moral coward, a charming sleazebag - and Irving's most interesting character.

He and his wife, Marion, have lost both their teenage sons in a road accident. Devastated, Marion nurtures her "superior madness" while Ted returns to writing, sex and squash. When Ted hires 16-year-old Eddie O'Hare as an assistant, the inevitable happens: he and Marion, who is nearly 40, begin an affair. Through Eddie, Marion retrieves something of her dead sons, while Eddie's love for her will determine both his books and his sad later life. Irving's pairing of young with old feels appropriate and strikes a welcome blow against ageism.

The novel begins with a primal scene - and scream - when four-year-old Ruth Cole encounters her mother and Eddie in flagrante. Irving has a fine ear for children's speech, and Ruth is enchantingly drawn. Relationships during this summer of 1958 intensify until Marion abandons daughter, lover and husband, to disappear for 37 years.

When we again meet Ruth - and Eddie - in 1990, she is an famous novelist debating whether to marry her much older editor as an escape from the "bad boyfriend" syndrome. Little of the delightful toddler remains. Unlike Ted, who has no rules, she has too many. Her limited experience has bred fixed ideas; privilege has isolated her.

Despite her brilliance, Ruth is naive and easily shocked. In fact she's a priss until, researching a novel in Amsterdam's red light district, she meets the prostitute Rooie. Their association plunges Ruth into the dark heart of her father's stories. Back in America she finds betrayal and yet more violence. So begins her long process of humanisation.

Irving is a builder with a 19th-century understanding of how to marshal his forces. His structural approach is to select three years: 1958, 1990 and 1995. Each point draws past and present into its vortex, creating an exciting sense of everything happening simultaneously. The interplay of themes and imagery seems effortless. Events in books find equivalents in reality and vice versa: so Ruth's old phobia about clothes closets comes chillingly to life in Rooie's red room.

However, if you're looking for a subtext: forget it. I have always thought that a story engages its readers as much through what it leaves out as what it includes. With Irving, nothing is excluded; no ellipses are allowed. The omniscient author both shows and tells. He stage-manages not only character and action but the reader's responses. Heaven forbid we should draw our own conclusions.

This nudging shows little faith in his readers' intellect, and slows the otherwise snappy pacing. How many times must we be told that Ruth has great tits, or listen to the Coles reminiscing over photos of their boys? Despite these irritations, it's hard not to like this study of control and coincidence. Irving's pleasure in working out these complex intertwining destinies is contagious. Like Ruth, when she feels "what it's like to be a character in a novel instead of the novelist", perhaps it's best to surrender to the story.