Old man's darling

The Constant Eye

Candida Clark <em>Chatto & Windus, 200pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0701169095

Candida Clark writes about sex: sex involving ageing male writers. Her first novel, The Last Look, is a torrid account of an affair between a dying 76-year-old writer and a young woman of 20. The Constant Eye, her second novel, describes a destructive relationship between a middle-aged writer and his emotionally unstable young wife and muse. The writer sees all women as raw material, and by constantly recreating and distorting his wife in his stories - "like some hideous vampire, sucking sustenance" - he becomes responsible for her loss of identity and eventual breakdown. The Constant Eye is a meditation on the nature of writing itself, and is divided into three related yet separate stories. As in her first novel, Clark structures the narrative skilfully, revisiting scenes from different angles.

The first story, narrated by an unnamed American writer, takes place on the Eurostar. It begins with the writer eyeing up a young woman sitting opposite him. After a brief conversation (no banal pleasantries here), they are soon hard at it in the train's lavatory. He then tells her two reassuring stories: one about a throat-slitting woman who likes to have sex with strangers on trains, the other about his wife's decline into madness.

After another steamy session in a Parisian hotel, things start to go wrong. The narrative becomes more intriguing as the writer begins to confuse the woman from the train with his wife, guiltily reliving the traumatic scene before he sent her into care. Almost imperceptibly, the wife replaces the stranger, and we wonder if we have been seduced by one of his own stories.

Next, the disintegration of the passionate relationship between Sam and Mia, whom we understand to be the husband and wife from the first story, is recalled from Mia's perspective. The battle between possession and annihilation is thrashed out in both sexual and emotional terms as Mia struggles to retain her sense of self. This section has a dreamlike quality, offset by dark and violent images, and the bleak conclusion is inevitable.

The reliability of the narrator is again called into question by the brief epilogue which reveals that the preceding story was the writer's fictional account of events. And, in the clever final line, Clark introduces an authorial "I" to remind us of the artificiality of the novel as a whole. The central questions of objectivity and subjectivity are suggested by the "constant eye" of the title - the all-seeing author. The poetic originality of Clark's prose sometimes results in bizarre descriptions, and this is nowhere more evident than in the recurring eye imagery. Constant is an understatement - there are as many references to eyes as there are pages.

The intensity and brutality of Clark's prose might make her the AnaIs Nin de nos jours, but I am curious about the erotic possibilities of lines such as: "[It] makes the hair on my balls crackle with expectation." This ebullience is possibly part of the characterisation of the writer: if so, perhaps Clark should have indicated this more clearly, or chosen a better writer as her foil. However, the novel is not aiming for authenticity, except perhaps on an emotional level. Instead, Clark has created a stylised, deeply self- conscious, fictional world. Plot and setting are secondary to the internal drama. Indeed, the dialogue, of which there is little, is so loaded and cliched that we are surely meant to understand that these characters exist in a rarefied, unreal dimension. Their chaotic sense of identity is reflected in the shifting characterisation. The ambivalent narrative, though at times contrived and confusing, manipulates the reader in a similar manner to the elusive games played by the lovers. By using stories within stories and by challenging our expectations, Clark forces us to read carefully, and to be aware of the very seductiveness of storytelling.

Lisa Allardice is an editor on the "Literary Review"