Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer

Beware amateur poets and deathbed confessions

James Urquhart
Sunday 14 May 2006 00:00 BST

On her deathbed, Dee Denham whispers to her son Thomas that her cancer is a punishment for her past actions. This ignites the investigative urge, strong in Thomas since his boyhood years marooned in an English boarding school, to delve into Dee's past as a forces' wife in 1950s' Cyprus. Dee had sailed out to join her husband Edward, serving as a Wing Commander in the waning British Empire's messy embroilment in Cyprus's partisan guerrilla war. Young Tom glimpsed this unsettled, sunny life during his brief holidays. Now a university history tutor, Thomas begins sifting through Dee's effects, searching (as his sister Paula, an agony aunt, angrily remarks) for evidence of a "sneaky fuck" or similar transgression that would explain their mother's final confession. Letters, a photo and oddments serve as clues to her life in Cyprus, which Mawer fleshes out as a parallel narrative, neatly dovetailing it into Thomas's present-day enquiries.

Thomas holds a faint echo of Malcolm Bradbury's more famous History Man, only older and less bold. He smirks at his faculty's laborious political correctness, and is smugly dismissive of a colleague who challenges him over his latest unprofessional relationship with one of his students. This is Kale, an impoverished single mother, who acquiesces to Thomas's cringe-making overtures with astonishing ease. He enjoys his limp reputation as a philandering tutor, but Mawer never manages to clarify what need this services in Thomas, who is strikingly passionless. His protestations of love to Kale are as bland and uninspiring as the attachment is hasty and shallow.

This becomes the principal faultline in Mawer's generally enjoyable novel. The Cypriot narrative blooms with life, a certain intrigue and some sharply drawn characters. As a beautiful young woman, Dee attracted the attention of Geoffrey Crozier, an urbane merchant banker and terrible amateur poet, whom Thomas will discover was actually a louche MI6 agent. The insistent and forward Major Braudel seems another candidate for an affair, as does Nicos, the rugged local taxi driver, both of whose attentions besiege Dee's growing boredom and isolation. How these three characters draw Dee into moral and physical peril forms the core of this unbalanced book, which is not at all well served by the rickety scaffold of Thomas's investigative role. His present existence has no depth, his fling with Kale is unconvincing on both sides, and his habit of serial relationships serves little purpose beyond signposting a ruminative dissatisfaction with his mother stemming from childhood.

Following the taut excitement of his last novel, The Fall, this is disappointing. The Fall placed an adrenalin-charged obsession with mountaineering into a handful of well-constructed, passionate lives, smirching the pure drive to conquer rock and fear with the baser, messy tangles of growing up, loving and fighting each other. Mawer used with great effect the same narrative technique of one generation scratching the veneer off its parents' skirmishes. The tension and vivacity of Swimming to Ithaca, however, is confined to Cyprus, where Mawer spent some of his own boyhood; Thomas's contemporary maunderings remain flat and dull.

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