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La Rochelle, By Michael Nath

Gripped by the thrill of the chase

Reviewed,Nicholas Royle
Monday 01 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Well-read, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking consultant neurologist Mark Chopra is in love with his best friend Ian's partner, Laura. Mark and Ian certainly like a drink and are on first-name terms with the landlady at Ian's local, where the "Remand Hero" and other suspected villains regularly give the golf game a hammering.

When Laura goes Awol and Ian seems incapable of doing very much to track her down besides increasing his alcohol intake, Mark decides to seize the initiative. He could do with time off work, a patient having complained about the alcohol on his breath. An unexpected lead is provided by the mysterious Joan Hunter, a psychic in D&G glasses and Anne Fontaine blouse who turns up in the pub to sniff Laura's knickers and deck the Remand Hero with a blow from a stool. Scenting his quarry, Mark dismisses any ethical objections and gives chase.

Michael Nath's debut novel runs to around 280 pages, yet the story could easily be told in 140. But if the first half of La Rochelle tends towards verbosity, the second is tighter and the tension builds. When Mark leaves London to follow up Joan's suggestion that he visit Whitby, the contrast between metropolis and countryside is like that between day and night, between the rational universe and the world of dreams. The writing, which is clever, witty and ambitious throughout, becomes shot through with a wonderfully oneiric unpredictability.

You might be slightly suspicious of an English lecturer turned novelist who uses an adverb such as "apotropaically" but leaves out commas you might have thought to be mandatory. But Nath can entertain with a whole page on different interpretations of what is meant by "a while", and many of his similes and observations – "she gave me a BBC-drama kind of look", "distant-eyed as a dentist's assistant" – are original, funny and absolutely spot-on.

Now we rely on small independent publishers such as Route, often based outside London, to support authors such as Michael Nath. It's up to us: order your copy now.

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