Paperback Reviews

Emma Hagestadt,Christopher Hirst
Saturday 20 November 1999 00:00 GMT

Walking the Dog, by Bernard MacLaverty (Vintage, £16.99, 198pp)

Walking the Dog, by Bernard MacLaverty (Vintage, £16.99, 198pp)

Belfast-born writer Bernard MacLaverty, author of Lamb, Cal and Grace Notes, has a knack for endowing the workaday with a little poetry. His latest collection of stories live and breathe Irishness. Whether dealing with gangland violence or the disappointments of an unsatisfactory marriage, the stories are notable for their natural sounding dialogue and self-deprecating humour. MacLaverty's gunmen are ineffectual, his women and children left in charge of the moral highground. In the collection's title story, a man out walking his dog gets picked up by a couple of IRA thugs who force him at gunpoint to say what he thinks of them. Unable to come up with an acceptable answer, he decides, in a reckless moment of folly, to let rip.

The Victorian Underworld, by Donald Thomas (Murray, £12.99, 346pp)

Like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Thomas's enthralling narrative probes the low-life of Dickensian London. We are plunged into a world of irresistible tricksters, beggars like the disgusting "offal-eater" and "toshers" or sewer-scavengers. Rat-killing by dogs - up to 500 rodents in a night at one venue - was a popular spectator sport. For a potential client base of 850,000 males, there were an estimated 80,000 prostitutes in London in 1860. Against this pullulating backdrop, Thomas focuses on the criminals who conned £100,000 from the Bank of England and filched a quarter-ton of gold from the London-Paris mail train. Even when gone to the bad, the energy of the Victorians is astounding.

Coleridge: darker reflections, by Richard Holmes (Flamingo, £9.99, 622pp)

A decade ago, Richard Holmes published Coleridge: Early Visions , which covered the poet's life up to the age of 32, by which time he had written some of the best-known verse in the English language, including Christabel , Kublai Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner . Until the publication of this sequel, it was commonly thought that the second half of Coleridge's life was a period of prolonged decline characterised by the single, fatally seductive word "laudanum" (opium dissolved in alcohol). Holmes reveals not only that Coleridge maintained a monumental level of productivity but he also produced wonderful poetry in his final decades.

It is by no means necessary to have read Holmes's first volume in order to plunge into the maelstrom of Coleridge's later life. This book hooks you irresistibly with its sun-drenched opening section covering the poet's unlikely stint as a busy and well-regarded official in Malta. On his return home, his career oscillated between spells of extraordinary effort - in particular, the production of a philosophical weekly from the depths of Cumberland - and sudden relapses into opium-induced inertia. He was desperately addicted, sometimes drinking two pints of laudanum a day. (Holmes notes Coleridge's "inspired economy of means" when he took lodgings upstairs from a pharmacist.) But even when he moderated his intake, Coleridge seems to have had an inbuilt anti-success mechanism. His attempt to launch himself as a fashionable lecturer was scarcely helped when he lost or messed up five of his six shirts. (One of the garments caused confusion when it turned up on a suicide.) His London publisher went bust, shortly after Coleridge sold them many of his most lucrative copyrights.

His behaviour could be intolerable. A series of embarrassments too terrible to be recorded (they were often sexual in nature) punctuated Coleridge's relations with the families who took him in and tended to his many needs. Wordsworth's warning to a would-be patron prompted a two-decade breach between the poets - but it is a tribute to the charm of this ceaselessly garrulous polymath that he prompted feelings of deep affection in virtually everyone he encountered. He attracted a series of selfless amanuenses and spent his last years in the household of a devoted physician. Like them, the reader is swept up by this superb account. We feel ourselves in the presence of an intellectual dynamo, hearing Coleridge's prescient insights (he was the first to use the terms "psychoanalysis" and "uncertainty principle") and engaging humour at first hand. This book is more than a magnificent biography; it is the rediscovery of a hugely appealing literary titan.

Homesickness, by Murray Bail (Harvill, £7.99, 421pp)

As well known in his native Australia as Peter Carey or Thomas Keneally, Murray Bail is a writer of infrequent but respected output. First published in 1980 this, his second novel, is a satire about a group of globe-trotting Australians on an endless package tour of the world. Addressing the experience of many New Worlders who go in search of their roots but come back feeling more rootless than when they set out, his characters roam from continent to continent scanning the travel guides for clues. Much of the action of the novel takes place in museums in Kito, Prague and Cold War Russia, the implication being that the tourists are just as much a curiosity as the exhibits on show. A writer with a strong visual imagination and a distinctive prose style.

Bloody London, by Reggie Nadelson (Faber, £5.99, 308pp)

Set in New York and London, Reggie Nadelson's latest Artie Cohen mystery sparkles with lifestyle detail. When the corpse of an Englishman is found floating in the art deco swimming pool of one of Manhattan's most exclusive buildings, wise-cracking private eye Artie Cohen finds himself investigating a group of White Russians trying to buy into respectability and real estate on the Upper Eastside. Unnoticed by Cohen, and indeed most other New Yorkers, basking in the heat of an Indian summer, go the activities of a group of Central Park drifters who've taken up residence near the East River. Compared by the critics to Patricia Cornwell and Sara Paretsky, Nadelson has more to say, but takes far too long to say it.

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