Novel of the week

The Hunter

Julia Leigh <em>Faber, 170pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571200095

Buddhism tells us that if we wait on the river bank we will eventually see the corpses of our enemies float by. Alternatively, we can hunt down our foe and shoot them dead. Martin David, the pseudonymous hero of Julia Leigh's first novel, The Hunter, oscillates between the poles of these opposing notions. As a trained killer, a soldier turned corporate mercenary, he inclines towards pre-emptive violence. But he also cultivates the art of patient anticipation, lives at one with the habits and habitat of his quarry and, when he isn't stalking or setting snares, practises a meditation technique known as mindfulness of breathing. He is as prone to let loose a Zen-like aphorism as a round of rifle fire. It is the accommodation, in both psyche and behaviour, of these superficially opposing traits that makes Martin David, aka M, so interesting - and so skilled in his work. The successful hunter, after all, must combine two aptitudes: the persistence of the tracker and the deadliness of the marksman.

The object of this hunter's quest is the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine - driven so close to extinction that its presence in the island's high wilderness is now a matter for debate, rumour and mythology. It may be that only one survives. M's well-paid mission is to seek and destroy; also to recover DNA-rich samples of blood, hair and tissue for the murky and, frankly, implausible purposes of his mysterious employers. Passing himself off as a zoologist conducting field research into the Tasmanian Devil, he lodges with a woman, Lucy, whose husband went missing on a genuinely scientific expedition into thylacine territory. M's friendship with the drug-addled, grieving Lucy and her wonderfully quirky children develops in a sequence of disjointed domestic interludes between hunting trips. It is a kind of loving, albeit as elusive as the tiger itself. But M is a functional man, in his element when trapping and surviving alone in a hostile environment. (If Lucy hitched up with him, her DIY worries would end in a stroke.) In their different ways they are isolated and incomplete, although neither is sure whether the other offers a path to happiness or a false trail strewn with further disappointment. In any case, M has to put romance on hold until his job is done - patience, once more, his mantra.

This is a promising set-up and, for most of the story, Leigh tells it with great skill. Her understated prose is at once richly descriptive and astringent. She conveys the Tasmanian landscape's wild beauty while defining the emotional semi-detachment of her protagonist. Leigh was the only Australian in the Observer's list of 21 young writers for the new millennium, and even this flawed debut cannot disguise a good novelist on the cusp of becoming a better one. But the flaws, here, are not to be dismissed lightly. The use of the present tense throughout and the uncertain handling of interior monologue are technical irritations. More serious is the inadequate explanation of the potential abuse of the tiger's DNA - a moral dimension glimpsed early on in the novel, but then ignored. More serious still is the fracture between parts one and two, where the arbitrary abandonment of the romantic storyline is near to being a cop-out.

The Hunter invites comparisons with Peter Matthiessen's classic, The Snow Leopard. In that novel, a trek through the Himalayas in search of a rare animal is the premise for a Zen meditation on the fate of humanity; 22 years on, Leigh - less explicitly mystical and arguably more ecologically pessimistic - grapples with similar themes. Her hero, too, finds himself increasingly attuned to the mental and physical processes of the beast. But with a hunter instead of a naturalist in the lead role, the identification of the seeker with the sought moves towards a tactical awareness rather than the empathy of one living creature with another. M might aspire to the introspection and self-disciplined asceticism of a sadhu, but in the end he finds compassion less easily attainable.

Martyn Bedford's most recent novel is "The Houdini Girl"