From the first page of John Burnside's novel, we are drawn into the mind of a rapist as he sits at the bedside of his next victim. She is asleep, oblivious to him and to the sadistic violation awaiting her. This startlingly imagined scene, combined with the dust-jacket blurb, leads you to assume that this is the tale of a sex offender's reign of terror. It isn't. It begins that way, but mutates into something quite different. What it is, in fact, is a deeply introspective rite-of-passage about a troubled young man at Cambridge in 1975, when a rapist is stalking the bedsitterland of that city, as indeed he was.
Opening a psychological thriller only to find a subtle study in psychological portraiture isn't exactly analogous to biting into a radish that you've mistaken for a raspberry, but the effect is similarly disconcerting. You can spit out or swallow; either way, the odd taste lingers. In fairness to Burnside, he does pull the mental turmoil of his hero into sharper focus than the backdrop of physical drama. But it is hard to dispel a suspicion that the reader is not alone in being confused by what kind of novel this is meant to be.
The central character, Paul, is an aspiring photographer who shares a rented house with two students: Clive, the laddish, rugby type, and Steve, the secretive loner. Paul neither courts nor shuns company, but he is happiest at the margins, preferring to observe unseen than to participate. He ventures out alone at night, or at dusk or dawn, taking his camera with him in search of "some state, resembling absence, that might be achieved in the half-light . . . a form of invisibility that would consist of nothing but attention, nothing but being itself". Yet he has relationships (one celibate, the other kinkily sexual), access to a social circle via his friend Richard, and (albeit with little enthusiasm) he goes to pubs, cafes and parties. Thus Paul oscillates between the extremes of solitude and gregariousness represented by his housemates, and those of frigidity and licentiousness represented by his two women. If anything, he has more in common with the rapist, whose thoughts we are sporadically privy to. The rapist, too, covets invisibility, in his mastery of disguise and stealth; even with capture, and his physical removal from society, comes the consolation of remaining an ethereal presence in the nightmares of women he has damaged.
For Paul, however, the compulsion is not to get inside the heads of others, but to understand what's going on inside his own. This is both complicated and simplified by a succession of "disappearances" - Clive, Steve, Richard and the rapist are all written out of the story; Paul's relationships end, another seems about to begin but does not. He takes a job at an insect research laboratory, then abruptly quits. Back home in Scotland, his father dies. Complication comes with the confusing effects that these events have on his mind; simplification comes with the reduction of his life to his essence: himself. In this state of isolation, he approaches a sense of identity that might enable him to balance the contradictory impulses of otherness and togetherness that characterise him. And, in experiencing a kind of rebirth following the death of his father, Paul is not dissimilar to the locusts in the lab, emerging green and shiny from their old, shed skin.
Maleness is at the core of this novel. What does it mean to be a man when, in a climate of fear and distrust, all men are rapists? And if aggression and assertiveness must yield to gentleness and sensitivity, then how to settle for creating an impression when you are conditioned, or genetically programmed, to make an impact?
Such issues are handled deftly when filtered through Paul's search for a notion of self, but the author is clumsier in scenes where he sets up characters of convenience - at a party, say - as mouthpieces for various shades of opinion. And the "thriller" element of the novel - at best, feebly melded with the main storyline - is abandoned long before the end.
Martyn Bedford's latest novel, Black Cat, is published by Penguin (£5.99)