BOOK REVIEW / Eavesdropping, incest and Tutankhamun's tomb: 'In the Houses of the West' - Christopher Burns: Hodder & Stoughton, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE LOCALES of Christopher Burns's fiction grow steadily more exotic. Snakewrist (1986), his first novel, was set in South America; The Condition of Ice (1990), his third, took place on the summit of an Alpine peak. While its successor takes in archaeological excavations in Twenties Egypt, the consistency of Burns's themes cancels out geographical distance. Whether at large in the Amazonian jungle, floundering on snowy precipices or monitoring Howard Carter's investigation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, his people are all of the same emotional stamp.

Happily, this exoticism is not simply brought in to provide local colour. Rather, it provides an essential backdrop to the development of character and plot. Burns specialises in psychological dramas, played out in the teeth of vengeful nature, the protagonists divided not only by loyalty, whether sexual or political, but also by opposed views of the world.

In the Houses of the West (the reference is to the Egyptian royal burial chambers), which hinges on the relationship between Raymond Murchison and Clive Oxtaby, two members of the Egyptian antiquities service, and Oxtaby's sister Lucinda, is a variant on this approach, in which bygone mysteries have a habit of underlying present disturbance.

Murchison, it transpires, is a typical Burns figure: reserved, pedantic, friendless. A long-term supporter of Oxtaby (whose re-employment he has contrived in the face of official disapproval), he immediately allows himself to fall for the sister as well. Complicated by incest - or so Murchison deduces from some eavesdropping on a hotel balcony - the human triangle exists within a wider conflict between rationality and mysticism.

Oxtaby, to whom the relics of ancient civilisation form an endless round of symbolic connection, believes that the early Egyptians created 'a real magic . . . a union with spiritual forces'. Vestiges of this remain in his apparent ability to transform a walking-stick into a cobra; its confirmation lies in a lost papyrus, the 'Book of the Other World', with whose discovery he is obsessed.

The various pursuits set in train by all this - Murchison's tracking of Lucinda (he gets her in the end, but without much joy), the hunt for the papyrus (eventually shown to be a delusion) - are cunningly worked out. And the mountainside denouement, by which time Oxtaby is clearly deranged ('I can do it. I can bring the Other World into the light of day'), is achieved with Burns's usual eye for sensory detail.

For all this, though, the novel has a slightly stodgy, unvarnished feel. Part of this is to do with Murchison's dispiriting colourlessness: his similarity to Maurice Fretwell, the hero of Burns's second novel, The Flint Bed (1989), a man almost transfixed by his own inanition, is a touch too close for comfort. Rather more of this stodginess, however, has to do with the chunks of establishing detail with which the characters habitually regale each other. 'Remember the Christmas celebrations . . .' Hutchison implores Carter, in an attempt to raise Oxtaby in the great archaeologist's estimation, and immediately we are plunged into a paragraph of prosy and quite implausible recapitulation.

Much of In the Houses of the West shakes free from this constricting baggage. Burns's best touches come when he allows Murchison to look beyond the fence of his emotional preoccupations. Haggling courteously with the Egyptian dealers, noting scenic detail (a buffalo 'so thin that there was a hollow between the bones of its hindquarters, and a small child lay asleep in it as if in a cradle'), recounting the techniques employed in the excavation, he loses his fussy self-absorption and becomes a convincing observer.

The secrets of Murchison's childhood, pushed to the surface by Clive and Lucinda's carryings on, are revealed with appropriate subtlety. Best of all, perhaps, is Burns's determination to allow his characters to be themselves. Given the time, the place and the subject matter, the reader comes expecting hulking metaphors of Imperialist rapacity. The concentration on individual lives consequently comes as a great relief.