Books: Independent choice

Novels of Brits abroad, by Roger Clarke
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South America for assassinations, cocaine and saints, Africa for bestial-in-the-gutter coups, Japan for kinky sex and consumerism. What would our young novelists do without these places? I suppose you could argue that it gets them out of London; at least they're not writing about infidelities and football.

Hoping for kinky sex in Africa, coups in Japan and who knows what in South America, I turned to Ronan Bennett, Gavin Kramer and James Maw for help in the war against boring racial cliches. But to no avail. James Maw's Nothing but Trouble (Sceptre, pounds 12) starts promisingly: a Donna Tart- ish scenario of two friends from Oxford, Jude Cornelius and Mills Clearwater, who arrive in Texas while Mills's father is running for President. Though Maw strikes few grace notes, his description of the surreal atmosphere of US electioneering as seen through the eyes of a fresh-faced British undergraduate is very good. The drunken, straight-talking matriarch of the Clearwater family is the best thing in the book. But all this vanishes when Mills does a bunk to Venezuela and becomes obsessed with a soon-to- be-sanctified assassinated doctor from Caracas.

Ronan Bennett, a well-known scriptwriter who manages to keep a filmic mentality impressively at bay, is a far more substantial writer. You never once feel he is a dialogue specialist slumming it in fiction. His novel The Catastrophist (Review, pounds 14.99) is set in the 1960s, during the Congo's struggle for independence from Belgium. It tells of Gillespie, a minor novelist working for The Observer, who finds himself being fed dangerous but lucrative lines by a CIA operative. This is complicated by the fact that the CIA man is secretly gunning for Gillespie's girlfriend Ines, an old-fashioned Marxist who has attached herself to one of the independence leaders. Bennett is a writer to watch, a genuine and gifted novelist - though I never quite grasped the reason why Gillespie is so obsessed with heavy-going, sloganeering Ines, who seemed to me merely irritating and naive.

Gavin Kramer succumbs to many tropes about the Japanese in his first novel, Shopping (Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99), but I liked it for all that. The western incomprehension of the Japanese psyche is most sharply defined when it comes to sex, but not even sympathetic Kramer can quite bring himself to explore Planet Japan in all its fluidic weirdness. He tells of an obsession which leads to madness in an English lawyer, Meadowlark - a stiff and starchy expat who keeps Japan very much at bay until he becomes involved with a schoolgirl Japanese prostitute, who ruthlessly manipulates him.

In many ways this is a Kiplingesque story of gin-soaked, sweaty district commissioners succumbing to jungle fever, translated into the glittering modernity of Tokyo. But, unlike Kipling, there is no sense of letting the side down - because there is no side to let down. This makes Meadowlark's predicament more pointless and alarming than anything Kipling might have conceived. Kramer holds back on some of the most extreme examples of Japanese sexuality - he ignores paedophiliac Manga comics for middle-aged women, for example - but his account of cultural and moral meltdown in a hypercity such as Tokyo is delivered with stinging assurance.

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