More war stories

Five Boys

Mick Jackson <em>Faber and Faber, 248pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0571206131

Mick Jackson's debut novel, The Underground Man (shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize), described the descent into madness and suicide of the Fifth Duke of Portland, a real-life Victorian oddball who built a network of tunnels under his estate. Jackson's follow-up effort, while less overtly gothic, is inhabited by a similarly ghoulish spirit. Set during and immediately after the Second World War, it recounts various strange goings-on in a small West Country village. Some of the events portrayed are loosely historical, others are entirely fictitious, but, seen through the villagers' distorting and mythologising eyes, they share a decidedly macabre character.

The novel opens with the journey to the village by Bobby, an evacuee from "Hitler's bombs". He is billeted with Miss Minster, an elderly spinster, and an awkward affection develops between them. At his best, Jackson does a sound job of rendering the emotional vicissitudes of Bobby's experience. The upheaval of evacuation is well suggested by his train's slow tugging out of Paddington station, and there is a good description when he arrives of his first cautious outing into the village.

Later, Jackson's focus moves from Bobby to the "Five Boys" of the title, an unconventionally mischievous gang who dominate village life in their fathers' absence. The boys relish the exciting, open-ended atmosphere of war; when normality reasserts itself, they feel confounded. By way of oblique protest, they "conjure up" a Pied Piper figure - the "Bee King" - who captivates them with his knowledge of arcane religious cults, cake-baking and bee-keeping. With his strange magnetism and self-determined laws, the Bee King figures for the children as a symbol of anarchic resistance to their parents' authority.

Like The Underground Man, Five Boys contains many bold, unconventional ideas, and is probably worth reading just for these. But unlike The Underground Man, it fails as a novel, because it lacks a sustained focus. Rather than limiting his subject matter - as novelists must to achieve a satisfactory sense of aesthetic and thematic cohesion - Jackson appears to have been afflicted by a kind of creative bulimia. He crams in so much material that this (short) novel is bursting at the seams. The narrative hops undecidedly from character to character, event to event, never settling in one place for long. Characters appear (and vanish) at random. As a result, no thread is fully traced, no idea realised. The Five Boys are a focus of sorts, but, with the exception of Aldred Crouch (the "sensitive" one), they are barely differentiated. Nor does the decision to relegate Bobby to the sidelines make sense artistically - he is Jackson's most compelling character.

Jackson's aim, perhaps, is to build up an authentically holistic picture of village life - an approach complemented by the evidently diligent research he has done into bell-ringing and bee-keeping. But much of the time, Five Boys simply reads like a novel-in-progress.

Along the way, there is also a good deal of stylistic ponderousness. The folksy, laconic narrative tone is irksomely inauthentic, and Jackson's fondness for grand-sounding but specious pronouncements ("The ostentation of the Americans' arrival was outdone only by the modesty with which they slipped away") does his cause few favours. Finally, the historical setting of Five Boys has a strangely stultifying effect. At times, it feels as if the period details are what Jackson cares about most - and it is true that he offers up a plausible reconstruction. But the best historical novels address the unknowability, not the knowability, of the past. They begin as imaginative acts, and derive authority from the authenticity of their visions. For Jackson, on the other hand, the past provides an inexhaustible deposit that enables him to disengage his imagination. Perhaps he should think about an alternative career as a social historian.