BOOK REVIEW / A heart of stone: 'The Marble Kiss' - Jay Rayner: Macmillan, 12.99 pounds

Rebecca Swift
Saturday 22 October 1994 23:02 BST

THIS energetic, well-written first novel divides its narrative between a Tuscan hill town in the 15th century and 1980s Florence. As with Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, it juxtaposes an animated portion of history with the obsessive, often misguided efforts of interested parties in the present day to tell a ripping good yarn. It also raises deeper questions: Has humanity really changed in 500 years? What on earth is history?

Opening with what must be one of the longest and most contorted wanks in literature, we are introduced to the grotesque Bartolommeo dei Strossetti, the bloated, varicose prince of the region from which he takes his name.

With the help of some racy, muscular prose, he brings himself to orgasm while his overpoweringly beautiful 16-year-old wife gives birth to a child he believes to be his son. The unfortunate woman, Joanna, dies rather bloodily in childbirth, but remains firmly at the centre of things to come, living on in the form of a 'life-like' statue hewn by a local artist, Rafanelli.

It is when the stone Joanna is restored, 500 years after her conception, that the trouble starts. For, in the opinion of Kelner, an arid American art historian, the restorer botched the job, and raped his beloved Joanna of her essence. This argument leads to the courtroom, and becomes a vehicle for well-researched debate, chiefly about the complex problems Florence faces in its role as guardian of great art in Europe, the possibility of a new Renaissance, and how hopelessly corrupt everybody is.

The personal story of a sharp young journalist, Alex Fuller, develops alongside his pursuit of the case. With the help of Joanna's descendant, the stunning, aristocratic, fantastically-good-at-English Isabella dei Strossetti, he slowly comes to terms with his own troubled immediate history, which is revealed slightly late in the day, having been flagged by awkward interjections in the form of chunks of memory about something awful that happened in Kenya. The second half of the novel, in which Alex reveals more of himself and solves a hidden mystery about the Joanna, has genuine suspense.

It is the layers of psychological realism which unpeel alongside the central theme of obsession for the Joanna that make this book more than simply a spunkily told tale. When we learn that Kelner's only son died of a rare wasting disease, we can understand more of his obsession for an object that encapsulates both tragedy and great beauty, and his ardent wish that it remain unchanged forever. The general movement in the novel is away from a simplified idealisation of a dead girl to the appreciation of things living and breathing. In a lovely twist of expectation, when Isabella and Alex finally make love, it is not in the way that he has fantasised about as 'delicate or slow or gentle or soothing'. It is, and Isabella has set the tone, 'raucous and noisy and funny and sweaty and hungry and extremely dirty'. What's more, unlike the relentless prince in the first pages of this book, Alex doesn't keep it up for very long. But it doesn't matter: it's more like real life.

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