BOOK REVIEW / Mrs Dalloway takes a walk on the wild side: 'The Glassblower's Breath' - Sunetra Gupta: Orion, 13.99 pounds

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THE Glassblower's Breath tells the story of a single day. A woman married to a rich man walks dreamily through London thinking about the other men in her life. She has some adventures and returns home to her husband. So far, so Virginia Woolf. But whereas Clarissa Dalloway is all ready for her grand reception in the evening, this woman forgets that her little niece has been asked to a birthday party. When she should be taking her there, she is in fact indulging in some pretty unsatisfactory sex in a seedy hotel with a man she has known for a couple of hours. Her return home results in a spot of bloodletting: this is not a metaphor, merely an understatement.

Fantasies, memories and dreams mingle with narrative, the relevant with the inconsequential, the past with the present and even with the future. There are times when the reader longs for help, but Sunetra Gupta is severe. Her first sentence contains 101 words and her punctuation is minimal. She weaves so intricate a web of images that only cussed determination to unravel it will get us to the end. Her heroine is identified as You, which has a shoulder-grabbing immediacy but, in the absence of inverted commas, makes the conversations even less intelligible.

Anyway, You begin the day by dropping Sparrow off at Heathrow. Sparrow is a man who sometimes makes candles in America, and whose masturbatory fantasies centre round 'Post-Impressionism or NeoPlasticism and favourite of favourites, the Lyapunov function'. He misses his plane and wanders around London all day, often only just missing You. He also just misses Your cousin Avishek who is an exotic bread-craftsman. Avishek has made Persian alphabet pasta and a marzipan Taj Mahal, but his dream is to make cakes modelled on Jude the Obscure's vision of Christminster, all dreaming spires and pinnacles.

Avishek has always lusted after You and decides to follow at a distance when You pick up Dan, a very unattractive failed hairdresser who now works 'mainly in boneless bulk' butchery. He takes You into arms that 'have been deep all week into the carcasses of dead cows, vats of mildewed sheep's brains . . .', while his sickly son, Kev, has a nosebleed in front of the television. Avishek rescues the child and all three, butcher, baker and candle-maker converge on Your smart Kensington home for their Grand Guignol finale.

Dreams are very close to the surface of this book. All the central characters recount them, frequently. The woman dreams recurrently of death; the little niece suffers nightmares about the rocking horse in her bedroom; the husband dreams, understandably, of being imprisoned in Last Year in Marienbad. Sparrow's real life is madder than a dream. He meets a man in a bowler hat who asks him if he is from Yorkshire: 'Schleswig-Holstein, actually, he had replied, spitting into the Stygian depths. I've just written a book on Michelangelo, the man told him sadly. I'm terribly sorry, said Sparrow, genuinely moved.'

Like an old home movie, flickering silent pictures run behind the narrative. A woman carrying a stuffed otter leaves a can of Diet Guava Crush on the railings outside the National Gallery, which the grateful Sparrow polishes off; later, the same woman pushes past Avishek in a toy shop. Characters are summoned into the middle distance to be identified through binoculars and then to recede. Hideous truths are mentioned casually in mid-sentence, ideas float in myriad images, teasing insubstantial thoughts succeed each other in rambling, evocative phrases.

By the end, it becomes nearly irresistible to start again, to pick up hints in the early pages of what is to come. On one level, it is a gory warning about open marriages; on another, it is about ambition and desire, communication and language, the orchestrated random cruelty of fate.

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