Benedick Richard, the narrator of Amanda Craig's fourth novel, is undergoing something of a mid-life crisis. Recently separated from his wife, and missing his two children, the out-of-work actor delves into his family's past to find out why his mother committed suicide. Did her success as a writer and illustrator of fairy tales threaten the men in her life, her husband in particular? Ten years before the onset of feminism, was the creative struggle too much to take on alone? And, in any case, was she perhaps a little mad?
With clever plotting, Craig intertwines Benedick's search for his mother's story with his quest for self-fulfilment. In particular, the gender issue is reversed, and we hear Benedick bemoaning the fate of his sex: "I grew up in a generation which had no idea that women were going to be our equals . . . We're a biological dead end . . . What was the point of being a man now?"
Initially, this comes across as just another plodding portrait of the so-called crisis of masculinity. The 39-year-old Benedick likes to stand in front of the mirror listening to James Bond soundtracks, while "drawing an imaginary gun from a holster". Other endearing fetishes include being rude to single women, not talking to his father and allowing his self-esteem to be all but eradicated by his ex-wife, Georgina.
In a woeful section, somewhere between slapstick and farce, Benedick makes several hapless suicide attempts. A lighting fixture is ripped out of the ceiling when he tries to hang himself; he cuts his wrists in the bath, but only superficially; and, for a man who is everywhere portrayed as supersensitive, he dismisses the sleeping pill overdose option as "essentially feminine".
Such a contradiction is problematic throughout. As a woman writer adumbrating the male psyche, Craig chooses to strike a difficult balance between Benedick's "New Man" openness and his function as a symbol of what is still wrong with men. On its own, this forced, slightly clumsy approach may not have worked, and many risible moments remain; but Craig's plan is complicated - and, to an extent, vindicated - by the realisation that Benedick is also seriously depressed. As the narrative develops into an understanding depiction of mental illness, we begin to realise that Benedick's earlier whinings and pinings are as much to do with his state of mind as they are with the plight of modern man living "in a kind of prolonged infancy".
Extracts from his mother's fairy tales are embedded in the narrative. Each one concerns a quest and centres around a wood, a place symbolic of fear and excitement, of transformation and renewal - or, in Freudian terms, of grappling with your id. These tales are simple, vivid and enchanting, their dreamy, symbolic register delightfully offsetting the ordinary, spiritually bereft lives recounted in the present-day story.
Allied to this is an ongoing exploration of the relationship between creativity and depression, and how art forms such as fairy tales can be read as both symptom and cure. Occasionally, this can be contrived, as images and ideas are pressed into the service of Craig's carefully annotated themes - which have, in any case, been extensively covered by the likes of Angela Carter and Marina Warner. There is also too much proselytising along the lines of "Everyone needs a story" versus "But Dick, people don't behave as they do in fairy tales".
Above all, In a Dark Wood is an affirmation of storytelling, and of the need for stories that can survive in an age of irony and gender confusion. If Craig's critique of the male psyche is unconvincing, her novel still works as an animated study of the exchange between the enchantment of fiction and the less than magical rites of everyday life.
Craig defends creativity, at times in trenchant tones, but there is sufficient energy and invention here to lift the novel beyond the limits of its thesis.