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Books: Floating artist of the postwar world

D J Taylor heads for the Antipodes and unloads the secret cargoes of British life
Acts of Mutiny

by Derek Beaven

Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

Though long superseded by the aeroplane and the campus, the ocean liner has always seemed an ideal venue for fiction. Time, passing strangers, a social microcosm, even the prospect of the elements turning nasty; together, these can produce an effective milieu. Quite apart from Brideshead Revisited, in half-a-dozen novels from the 1930s and 1940s the action is played out behind rain-spattered bulkheads or beneath the light of some gibbous tropical moon.

Derek Beaven's absorbing second novel shifts a good deal of this well- worn scenery into place. For the most part, takes place on the Armorica, bound from England to Australia via the Mediterranean, the Gulf and Singapore in 1959. Its human cargo includes Robert Kettle, a relocating scientist, Penny Kendrick, en route to rejoin her husband in Adelaide, a levanting housewife and her dubious American boyfriend, Mr Chaunteyman, and Ralph, the former's young and slightly sinister son.

Though much of the action takes place beyond Ralph's immediate orbit, his first-person narration and saunters through the thickets of family history define him as the book's raisonneur. Beneath his fetishistic gaze (Beaven's take on this type of out-of-kilter pre-teen mind is wholly convincing) relationships prosper and decay. Robert and Penny find romance under the stars, while Erica has the first hints of disenchantment at the hands of Mr Chaunteyman.

There is another pursuit going on here, along with the extra-marital jockeying and the plundering of the stop-over bazaars. The spectre of post-imperial decline skulks into view long before the first-class lounge is awash with rumours that the hold contains a nuclear warhead in covert transit to Malaya. Steerage is full of pounds 10 emigrants, the talk elsewhere is of the Aldermaston marches. Amid these inconspicuous gestures at national identity, the gloss added by Robert's Australian bunk-mate - "You were on the winning side, I say, but the British Empire lost the war" - seems an odd piece of flag-waving in a novel that proceeds by stealth.

Perhaps a little too much stealth; or maybe a better word would be over- saturation. Beaven's sharp, elliptical paragraphs, stuffed with acute set-piece descriptions of scene and incident, sometimes need to be read more than once to yield up their design, while Ralph's anxieties over memory lapses - not to mention the number of resolutions which take place parenthetically - are mildly confusing.

Among a raft of well-drawn characters, Mr Chaunteyman, too, is not much more than a caricature. But where succeeds - in the slow unfurling of Robert and Penny's love, say, or in Ralph's razor-sharp recollection of life in 1950s Plumstead with his sadistic old dad - it does so admirably. For all the modern baggage, and the neat, thematic extensions provided by Ralph's Falkland War memories, the final effect is pleasantly reminiscent of Francis King's under-rated 1950s novels: tense, claustrophobic, full of badly contained postwar English irritation. This may make it sound like a period piece. In fact, most of Beaven's concerns look winningly up-to-date.