Lesley Chamberlain enjoys a novel that takes issue with the half- truths of the TV headlines: A Foreign Country by Francine Stock Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99, 218pp
THE CONSPIRACY of half-truths behind much television news reporting forms the backdrop to this haunting fiction about the moral and political values of two professional generations. As a wartime civil servant, Daphne, now 74, drew up lists of Italian immigrants to be deported on suspicion of Fascist sympathies. There was little firm evidence, but she felt she did the right thing for her country. Fifty years later, glamorous TV anchor girl Rachel wants to branch out into something meaningful and scents a story - or the chance to apportion blame.

She tries to bring Daphne into contact with a man she blacklisted. But for Daphne, even the facts that the deportees' ship was torpedoed, and innocent parties suffered and died, only reflect "the cruelty of chance and the strangeness of life". The only factor that might have brought her closer to public regret is her unrequited love for her son, Oliver. He has been under pressure from the cradle to be as rational as his mother, and she dreads letting him down. Of course, it doesn't look that way to him. Thanks to a neat plot, Oliver's evaporating filial promise and general weakness is summed up in the designer relationship he hardly enjoys with Rachel.

Did Daphne do wrong? In his muddle, Oliver might have thought so, had work not left him too exhausted to think. Do we really care? The "issue" plot seems as forced as many such issues in our newspapers, and fails to drive real action because it only equips characters with second-order desires. But the novel takes off as a remarkable piece of thinking when it allows us to compare Daphne's experience with Oliver's, as he makes a documentary in somewhere like Chechnya.

Francine Stock's point seems to be that we have a moral need to specify an essential element in our life and work as "real". In Daphne's day, that element was supplied by war, patriotism and commitment to family. For Oliver, whose home is instinctively the office, and whose job as a TV producer is to keep mixing the facts until he gets a pattern suitable to the moment, there is no such anchor - just a vague belief in individual freedoms. Trying to understand both rebels and government forces in a "not sophisticated, barely political" land, Oliver hardly grasps what keeps those people going: a sense of national belonging, just as Daphne had. The charismatic poet-cum-prime minister Mekhusla teases him. A quick interview, then back to some fashionable spot in London? At least my world is real to me.

Marx might have called it post-industrial alienation. None of Stock's characters, not even the aggressive- defensive icon Rachel, dressed for power, is happy about the "desolate landscape of the newsroom" which increasingly frames all our experience. As a graceful and intelligent figure on our screens, and now a voice on the radio, Stock should know.

Both the setting of the "Chechnya" plot and these troubled reflections on spiritual emptiness and the yearning for authenticity recall John le Carre's undoubtedly more successful novel of 1995, Our Game. What Stock underlines is how not only redundant spies and ambitious journalists, but also you and I, now inhabit a world where all morality and politics seems like mere posturing, as if we were trapped in an endless studio. She reminds us that some of the best real thinking around today is in novels such as A Foreign Country.

Francine Stock in Morocco: see page 19

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