Novel of the week

The Last Life

Claire Messud <em>Picador, 350pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0330375636

The Last Life is a second novel of maturity and tenderness, full of grand ideas and poignant reminiscences, elegantly rendered in well turned-out sentences - syntax as stylish as this is a rare thing in young contemporary fiction. Clearly the author loves the mechanics of language as much as she loves the machinations of great minds - Camus, St Augustine - whose ideas are brought to bear on a plot that is less a driven narrative than a highly figurative portrait of a wealthy French-Algerian emigre family, painted by a young woman, Sagesse La Basse.

Now living in New York, La Basse recalls a single year in her life, when she was 15 and growing up on the south coast of France. It was a pivotal time, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood - her grandfather was thrown into jail for shooting at some of her friends; her father was discovered to be adulterous and subsequently killed himself.

This combination of family shame and personal pain precipitated La Basse's habits of secrecy, reinvention and self-denial: the story begins and ends with the narrator finally realising the importance of being honest and open about her past and the events that have shaped her.

But The Last Life, perhaps unavoidably, can read too much like a memoir. It is hard to shake off this feeling, with all its attendant reservations about dubious truthfulness and the narrator's indulgence in repetitive, merely expedient philosophising and outrageous conflations of historical horrors and teenage traumas - alluring, perhaps, in a memoir, but not in a novel . . .

Having said this, the good writing is most certainly here, and any tendency to over-poeticise, or the rather lost-in-the-literary-woods quality of the middle of the book, is nothing a wise editor couldn't have fixed. And as it weighs in at about 350 pages, with a storyline that can be summarised in three words - Sagesse grows up - my hat is definitely off to Messud for making the entire thing so thoroughly devourable. It has something of the wistful flavour of Jean Rhys, coupled with the brittle charm of F Scott Fitzgerald. Equally, though, there's a Daisy Pulls it Off feel about some of the teenage fumblings, making the emotional register slide swiftly from frank wonderment - which is moving - to naive assertions, which can at times be unworthily gauche.

So whose voice are we supposed to be listening to and caring about? This is never entirely resolved. Some of the author's more complex ruminations sit uneasily alongside the childish obsessiveness and sheer ordinariness of La Basse's emotional development. And in the end, the two tones of voice reflect badly on one another: neither is sufficiently engaging to distract from the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia - for a teenager who didn't exist quite as she's now remembered and for a time and place that is given a significance that was certainly never felt at the time.

But then this kind of ambivalence also results in the book's strengths: the process of creating a fictional self and of storytelling as a way to sustain the past and thus postulate a future, as well as to escape the existentialist's worst nightmare - that of being trapped in a perpetual present; these are all important ideas handled expertly. (Though presenting La Basse's brain-damaged, deformed brother as an illustration of this is unnervingly cruel.)

The strands of this story are manifold. Some run deep yet leave little impact; the Algeria of La Basse's imagination is necessarily just that: a place half-dreamed of, insubstantial, revealed through second-hand stories, myths and metaphors. Other strands leave a more lasting impression: childhood loves, her complex relationship with her parents - unresolved and all the better for it.

Candida Clark's second novel, "The Constant Eye", is published by Chatto & Windus in January

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