Novel of the week

In the Shape of a Boar

Lawrence Norfolk <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0297

Lawrence Norfolk has a fascination with layers. He describes the shooting of a movie scene in which a woman is shoved against a wall, grazing her shoulder and leaving a smear of blood. It is a special effect, the wall's white surface being underlaid with red dye. Elsewhere, the hero revisits an interrogation room, only to find that the stains of torture on a wall have been painted over. Similarly symbolic images recur in Norfolk's keenly awaited third novel, in which he elucidates a central preoccupation: the excavation of facts from the fictions that accumulate above them like so much topsoil. Here is the novelist as narrative archaeologist, a digger for "truth".

The book itself, with its multiple layering of stories, is an embodiment of its own theme, and opens with a story adapted from Greek legend. The king of Kalydon, having neglected his sacrifices to Artemis, is punished by the goddess, who sends a monstrous boar to ravage his lands. A band of heroes sets out to kill the beast, their quest forming the novel's first section. Written in a modern variant of the classic mode, it is a study - disappointingly dense in places, and overlong - of the relationship between hunter and hunted, man and myth. It is also a romance involving the three heroes who lead the pursuit. By the time Meleager, Meilanion and the huntress Atalanta corner the boar in its lair, they are themselves trapped in a triangle of longing. Footnotes litter the early pages. Initially no more than source references, they grow more discursive, then cease altogether, before resuming near the end of part one. If the notes dress the tale in scholarly authenticity, their removal strips the main text bare. Is this where Norfolk plugs the gaps left by the chroniclers of ancient Greece? Or is he stressing the distinction between a story and an account? Whatever, the effect is to draw the reader's attention to the telling, as well as to the tale.

In part two, the legend of the Kalydon boar is adapted again - retold in the setting, and idiom, of 20th-century Europe. This, the more consistently engaging section, is the story of Sol Memel, a Jew who flees Nazi-occupied Romania. He eventually reaches the mountains of what was once Kalydon, where he is caught up in skirmishes between Greek partisans and the Germans. Sol fuses his ordeal with the mythological hunt in a poem that earns him international renown. Fame, however, brings scandal. An academic edition - annotated by a boyhood friend and fellow Jew - questions the authenticity of his wartime saga. And when an ex-lover from those times starts work on a film version, the hunting down of the truth becomes dangerously intense. Here, the love triangle of the first section is re-enacted by a new cast.

My proof copy of In the Shape of a Boar contained inserts - rewritten passages stapled over the sections they would replace in the final, published edition. Ordinarily, and rightly so, reviewers and readers alike are not privy to an author's revisions. I cite them only because, given the novel's theme, there is a delicious irony in the concealment of parts of an earlier draft beneath new layers of text. In a book about narrative strata, there are narrative strata. Not to mention the publisher's concern that a critic should not judge an unfinished version of a book about unfinished versions.

Once again, Norfolk flexes the intellectual muscles that place him among the fittest of contemporary writers. He also displays his talent as a creator of character and plot, given that this is a treatise on storytelling that seldom forgets it is a story; a story whose closure - appropriately, paradoxically - is open, or at least open to interpretation. As one account is overlaid with another, then another, so it becomes increasingly difficult to disinter the original, underlying facts of the matter. Ultimately, the very notion of a bedrock of veracity is cast into disrepute. All we have for sure is stories.

Martyn Bedford's new novel, Black Cat, is published by Viking on 5 October