Novel of the week

The Smoke Jumper

Nicholas Evans <em>Bantam, 448pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0593045254

The poster campaign for the new novel by Nicholas Evans urges readers to "rekindle the passion" they felt for his first book, The Horse Whisperer - a proposition I find somewhat tricky. Fifteen million people bought a copy of this cowboy love story. I am one of them. Unfortunately, its technicolour setting and mushy plot left me unmoved. For some reason I cannot quite fathom, I have only to hear the words "horse whisperer" and an image of Barbara Woodhouse blowing up the nose of an unruly Alsatian arrives, unbidden, in my mind. Dogs, horses - as far as I'm concerned, communing with animals is a ludicrous business, however you choose to do it.

Luckily, there are no animals in The Smoke Jumper. Occasionally, an elk stalks across the page, its antlers silhouetted against the big Montana sky. But in the main, this is a book about people. OK, so they're ballsy, outdoor types who shin up rock faces the way the rest of us dash in and out of a leg wax, and who think nothing of the sound of bears rustling in the undergrowth (they've hung their food high in the trees, you see, as all good campers should). But they are people, none the less - generous-spirited, good-looking, with a nice line in meaningful silences.

Blond, blue-eyed Connor Ford is a Missoula photographer who spends every summer working as one of the smoke jumpers, elite firefighters who parachute their way into mountain wildernesses and then set to work taming the flames. He is strong and brave, but artistic and sensitive, too - his father died when he was a boy, and he grew up on a ranch with only his rodeo-riding mother for company. A loner, he has one close friend, Ed, a musician and fellow smoke jumper. Before they jump out of planes, these two high-five each other and shout: "Hearts of fire" - a ritual that had me clenching my buttocks, but which will no doubt have some Hollywood studio head cracking open the Krug.

Ed has a beautiful new girlfriend called Julia - wooed by his guitar and boyish wit. He decides to bring her to Missoula for the summer. While he and Connor fight fires, she works as a counsellor at a summer camp for teenagers who are in trouble with the law. She takes these naughty, wayward boys and girls across the mountains, and watches nature work its magic on them. Honestly, it works. The only trouble is, the lustful Connor is already obsessing about the birthmark on the back of her neck; as you can imagine, he doesn't much like listening to Ed's creaking bed when she returns to their rented pad at the weekends.

Predictably, their lives change with the outbreak of a fire on a peak known as Snake Mountain (this is, I think, a Native American name rather than a Freudian one). Julia and one of her young charges are caught in its midst, and Ed and Connor must save them. It would be churlish to tell you what happens next - but suffice to say that Julia must choose one man when, deep down, she wants another. Years of agony ensue. She stays dutifully in Montana, coming to terms with her guilt. Connor sets off around the world, photographing man's inhumanity to man wherever he finds it. His pictures are celebrated and hang in swanky Manhattan galleries. Then, one day, he finds he must once again walk through fire to reach his beloved.

At this point, you can almost hear the roar of accompanying orchestral music. But, although I feel almost rabidly cynical about this book (the buddy stuff, the sickly romance, the pious do-gooding, the barely credible plot), Evans knows how to twiddle all the right knobs. As a technician of the human response, he is second to none. You want tears? You got 'em. He should be shouting down a loud hailer at Julia Roberts, not sitting quietly at a typewriter in deepest Devon.

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