Novel of the week
Antonia Logue Bloomsbury, 318pp, £15.99
Three years ago the publisher Bloomsbury earned a flurry of unexpected publicity when it paid a six- figure advance to an unknown 22-year-old Irishwoman in return for a short plot synopsis and the promise of her novel to come. Three years later the story of the young writer who hits the literary jackpot has been done to death, but what distinguishes Antonia Logue is that she turns out to have been worth every penny.
Shadow-Box is the fictional reconstruction of an unlikely bond forged between three real historical characters as they moved and shook in the early years of this century: the black American heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Jack Johnson, his sparring partner, the art critic Arthur Cravan, and the modernist poet Mina Loy.
The story progresses through an exchange of letters between Johnson and Loy 30 years after Cravan goes missing, presumed dead, in Mexico and follows their attempts to make sense of their lives and Loy's love affair with Cravan. The backdrop is an incendiary political and intellectual climate which brings together this unlikely trio and eventually tears them apart when it recedes into repression and war.
Logue's commentary rushes the reader into the action at a dizzy pace as Johnson bounds from ring to ring, lazily flooring a succession of flabby white boys and ducking the racism of his audience: "I held back and let him dance around me a bit, then tickled him with a nice slow uppercut, pulled back, danced some more, fought the urge to belt him and kept tickling under his chin till the bell went."
While Johnson dances his way into trouble with the authorities and ends up fleeing to France, Mina Loy is travelling in the other direction. After a flirtation with Italian futurism and its guru Marinetti, she fetches up in the talking shops of the New York avant-garde, outraging contemporary mores with her poetry, and name-checking Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams along the way.
Into this suffocating milieu floats Cravan, "this life-changing embodiment of everything I would come to love most about being alive", and the two are soon on the road together, Cravan fleeing the threat of conscription in the looming world war. For the most part, Arthur Cravan remains an opaque, almost mythical, figure, peripatetic and constantly hatching some plot or other.
Shadow-Box is written in long, lyrical sentences that leave the reader breathless and incapable of raising any objection. Logue's dry humour gently deflates the pretensions of the literary salon, where one lady of leisure "wafted her cigarette smoke around the room as though it were on the trail to the most kissable lips in New York". She is careful not to whitewash her characters: Johnson's violence puts his girlfriend in hospital, Loy's love of poetry and Cravan leads her to neglect her children and Cravan comes with a reputation as a duplicitous philanderer.
But Logue's point is that what unites the three as much as Loy's affair with Cravan is a shared thirst for experience and adventure, which took them to the heart of the social upheavals of their time. Shadow-Box is short on steamy, protracted love scenes: as Logue tells it, the frisson that attracts Loy to Cravan is as much about adrenalin as anything else, "that energy and excitement that caught you by the balls, a dart of thrill sometimes that wasn't erotic at all, but chilling, because you were catching his energy like it was cholera".
Logue has made full use of her promising material and writes with a raw passion brought down to earth by the unfussy, conversational charm of her story-telling. For those left cold by the pallid romances on offer in the lonely-hearts columns - a nice glass of wine, long walks in the country - her book is a spirited reminder that the elements of the most inspiring love affairs add up to rather more than a quiet life.