Books: Dancing with death

Sylvia Brownrigg counts up the gains from a tale of losses

The Short History of a Prince

by Jane Hamilton

Doubleday, pounds 9.99

The American novelist Jane Hamilton is especially alert to life's weighted moments, those suspenseful pauses which mark the haunted place between "before" and "after". Her painful, compelling book A Map of the World began on the day Alice Goodwin, looking away from playing children, inadvertently allowed her best friend's toddler to walk into the pond and drown - a tragedy which had further, devastating consequences.

Hamilton's new novel opens on the morning a suburban mother finds a growth on her son Daniel's neck. It marks the onset of the Hodgkin's disease that will kill him. The novel, however, is not Daniel's story but that of his younger brother Walter, whose great grief in his 15-year-old life is to want things he can't have: to be a great ballet dancer, and to share his love for the divinely handsome Mitch, who dates their mutual friend Susan.

The narrative, which takes time to find its pace, alternates between 1972 - the year Walter, Susan and Mitch go through their changes as Daniel deteriorates - and 1995, when the aimless Walter decides to return to Wisconsin after living in New York. Returning home involves re-evaluation. His job, teaching high-school English, brings back his adolescent doubts and passions, while attending his family's gatherings at their lake house raises questions about the relation of the past to the future, of love to fidelity, of family loyalties to financial gain.

Hamilton's structure favours emotional and intellectual reflection over plot, which creates a problem in the first third of the book, when her touch is uncharacteristically heavy. She has Walter looking up his name in the dictionary to discover it means "to roll, to be tossed on the wave... His name, in any form, did not portend an easy life." Walter's exuberant passion for dance is detailed and vivid (Hamilton trained as a dancer), but she can't resist explaining that "If life for Walter was composed in part of confusion, shame and deception, the ballet was order, dignity and forthright beauty." Walter's urban snobbery towards his more provincial younger sister (born after Daniel's death), and to Midwestern tastes generally, also palls.

The novel comes alive, and discovers its humour, in the account of the unhappy teenaged triangle of Susan, Mitch and Walter. Initially Walter seems doomed to be forever the third wheel. The story turns when Susan falls for the ailing Daniel, leaving the dumped golden boy Mitch to cry on Walter's shoulder - or, more accurately, trade stoned late-night sexual encounters with him. Hamilton's funny, acute descriptions of Walter's devotion - "He whispered `Mitch' into his pillow; he opened his closet and said it louder; he sang it softly in the shower" - are nicely saved from pathos by the 38-year-old Walter's ironic reflections on them. That Susan and Walter have a deep friendship as adults, trading emotional confidences in the way gay men and straight women do, is a fitting emotional justice.

As Daniel and the novel approach their end, Hamilton's narrative gains emotional power and her community pulls together. We never know Daniel, but we come to know his distraught, distracted mother; Walter's wonderfully mean butch aunt Sue, who spotted a kindred spirit in Walter and took him to his first ballet; and the irascible nosy neighbour Mrs Gamble, on whom Mitch and Walter play an inspired prank.

Hamilton's fiction is poised somewhere between the sweeping ambition of Jane Smiley and the suburban tales of Alice Hoffman. Her oddly particular gift in this and earlier novels is to train a clear eye on the way an early death transforms the lives around it, and not always nobly.

Walter says to Susan. "It seems to me that grieving the way we have is a luxury, of our time and place, that it's a privilege and a burden of our era." Understanding that burden and that privilege is Hamilton's graceful achievement.

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