BOOK REVIEW / The velvet underground, with paws for thought: 'Duncton Stone' - William Horwood: HarperCollins, 15.99 pounds

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YOU EITHER like anthropomorphic fiction or you don't. Giving animals human characteristics has a distinguished pedigree in fairy stories and children's fiction, from Puss in Boots to Winnie the Pooh, but it has had a tougher time being accepted in adult fiction. Although, since the success of Watership Down, a number of anthropomorphic novels have made the best-seller lists, the genre itself is usually seen as cute, whimsical or downright embarrassing. Especially by people who don't want to be lectured on how to live life by a furry creature or a seagull.

William Horwood writes about moles. Not the six-inch-long, shortsighted, solitary moles who even as we speak are burrowing beneath fields and making a mess of gardens throughout the land. Horwood's moles are heroic, far-sighted visionaries who band together and fight battles to be allowed to live together in Buddhist-like peaceful co-existence. And he makes no bones about offering his two best-selling trilogies as a possible guide to living.

Over the past 15 years hundreds of his two million readers have written expressing their gratitude that he does just that. Doubtless, with the publication of Duncton Stone, the last of the Book of Silence trilogy, he will get hundreds more letters. Horwood, moved by his need to come to terms with his own illegitimacy and his search for his real father, tackles both emotive subjects and big themes in Duncton Stone, as in the other volumes in the trilogy.

Other works in the genre - most notably Animal Farm or Art Spiegelman's Maus - have succeeded with serious themes, and if the suffering of Holocaust victims can be movingly expressed through a picture book about a family of mice, then clearly anything is possible. Such things require deft handling - the publisher's blurb for Duncton Stone has already graced Pseuds Corner in Private Eye - but if you accept the premise of a serious book whose characters are moles, then you will probably feel that Horwood has succeeded in his aims.

Certainly, the Book of Silence has great strengths. It is anthropomorphism come of age and taken to an extreme. Duncton Stone may at first glance be about talking animals, but Mrs Tiggywinkle it isn't.

The main story concerns the struggle, by pacifist and warlike followers of the religion of the Stone, against the totalitarian rule of fundamentalist fanatics known as Newborns, who have taken control of much of Moledom. It would be absurd to talk about realism in a story about moles, but Horwood does introduce into their world all the horrors and brutalities of the human world. There is a lot of vividly described violence. And there is sex.

Reading about moles having sex is probably not to everyone's taste, although at least Horwood doesn't go into 'he put his paw here, she put her snout there' detail. But, of course, it is logical that Horwood's characters, moles who have nothing but human characteristics, should have all kinds of sex: consensual and forced, meaningful and transitory, deviant and downright disgusting. Quail debauches young male and female moles, then passes their dead bodies on to his sidekick, Snyde, for a little late-night necrophilia.

In writing about animals, Horwood is able to go beyond the acceptable bounds of human behaviour. His intention in giving his moles human characteristics is to explore human nature more fully. However, though it may be logical to have his moles engage in rape and sexual abuse, it reads rather perversely.

That aside, Duncton Stone is exciting and moving. Horwood is a stirring storyteller whose pleasure in the English countryside is evident in his evocative descriptions of the changing landscape and seasons. Duncton Stone and anthropomorphic fiction form part of the burgeoning fantasy genre. Like many fantasy writers, Horwood takes his lead from Tolkien and C S Lewis, and shares with them a taste for strong narrative.

Our attitude to animals is complex. Perhaps anthropomorphism is a distorted relic of a totemic age when humans came to terms with their own social order and the natural world by claiming descent for their grouping or clan from a particular animal. Then again, perhaps we are just soppy about them. Horwood's books about the adventures of his Duncton moles are a magnificent, if peculiar, achievement. All human life is there.

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