Book review: The Ugliest House in the World By Peter Ho Davies (Granta, pounds 9.99)

Monday's book

Justin Wintle
Monday 12 January 1998 01:02 GMT

Peter Ho Davies is a new writer who has cleared two difficult hurdles in one jump. He has published a first book, and this is a collection of short stories. Since publishers have grown wary of short stories by anyone, he should feel pleased with himself. On the other hand, if the writing is any guide, it is hard to imagine that feeling pleased with himself is prominent in Davies's emotional vocabulary. He specialises in controlled avoidance, letting his several worlds speak sideways for themselves. If I had to lay a wager, I'd point to VS Naipaul as an influence.

The name is as good a starting-point as any. Will he catalogue under D, or H? It could be the vital career decision. His father, Granta tells us, is Welsh, his mother Chinese, and he grew up in Coventry.

Of the eight stories in The Ugliest House in the World, two concern Wales, two the Malay Chinese, and two the English Midlands. There are also tales about Butch Cassidy and the Kid toying with ostriches in Patagonia, and flatulence among the heroes of Rourke's Drift.

In each case Davies maintains an equipoise towards his varied subject matter. The Welsh and the Straits Chinese and the English interest him circumstantially, but there is little sense of compulsion. His differentiated garments come out of the wash in similar condition: sensitively cleaned, and beautifully ironed.

The Ugliest House in the World reflects displacement without its mandatory traumas. In "The Silver Screen", a finally lacklustre story about a group of insurgents taking to the jungle during the Malay Emergency, the Chinese and the British never meet in any singular or meaningful way. Rather, Davies extrapolates a deliberately absurd acclimatisation to the movies of John Wayne. Elsewhere, too, he displays a penchant for funky history. Indeed, only in "A Union", the longest and most absorbing story, is funkiness discarded.

Here Davies dwells on the misfortunes of one Welsh household during the turn-of-the-century slate quarry strikes in Gwynedd. The result, as painstakingly researched as it is understated, could almost have been written by Kate Roberts herself, except that she wrote in Welsh.

Even in "I Don't Know, What Do You Think?", about someone who counsels would-be suicides, any psychological disturbance is deftly contained by its author's own take-it-or-leave-it therapy. Clearly Davies is not a man to be wowed by anything, but preserves his own bitter-sweet view of things - the point of contact, perhaps, between his several inheritances. For a writer setting out in today's glittering philistine market, this is a high-risk strategy; but just because of it, I shall look out for whatever he does next.

Justin Wintle

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