Monday's Book: Undiscovered Country by Christina Koning Viking, pounds 10.99

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A young boy sits at his desk trying to recall the opening lines of Rupert Brooke's The Soldier. One look at the community around him should provide the perfect aide-memoire, because, as the expatriates in Christina Koning's second novel try to turn the Maracaibo oilfields into a hotter version of the Home Counties, there is clearly one corner of Venezuela "that is for ever England".

The novel is set in 1953, when the discovery of Venezuela's oil-fields has led to a second European invasion, less bloody but no more benign than that of the Conquistadores. The expatriates scorn the country on which their prosperity depends ("this hellhole"). Meanwhile, they party for England - literally, on fancy-dress nights - and suffer all the despair of living in a close-knit community where they know everything about each other ... and most of that would fit on an air-letter home.

The adults despair of themselves and the children despair of their parents. The central consciousness is that of Tony, an 11-year-old witness to the disintegrating relationship of her mother, Vivienne, and her American stepfather, Jack.

Tony never knew her father, an RAF pilot killed in the war. The war, however, remains a crucial factor in her life. Its battles are still being fought, whether in domestic disputes between Vivienne and Jack or, more savagely, in the violent depressions of Sophie van Wel, a Dutch Jewess whose parents and brothers were killed by the Nazis and who can never forgive herself for her escape.

What unites these characters is a sense that not only are they not at home on this continent; they are not at home in themselves.

Koning, however, shows herself to be an expert observer. She displays not only great respect for the people but great love for the landscape. The result is the finest description of South America in an English novel since George Steiner's The Portage to San Christobal of AH.

There has been a recent vogue for novels in which middle-aged women review their 1950s childhoods, notably Shena Mackay's The Orchard on Fire and Ita Daly's Unholy Ghosts. A certain inconsequentiality prevents Undiscovered Country from attaining that class; it is still full of exquisite writing and considerable charm.

Michael Arditti