Novel of the week

The Deadly Space Between

Patricia Duncker <em>Picador, 246pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0330490095

Patricia Duncker's debut work of fiction, Hallucinating Foucault, was a sophisticated combination of thriller, love story and philosophical exploration. Her second novel, James Miranda Barry, flamboyantly fused history and fiction in the story of a 19th-century woman who lived convincingly as a man while enjoying an illustrious medical career. Never a writer to content herself with a single theme, Duncker's latest book is a characteristically rich blend of unsettling psychology and literary playfulness.

Borrowing its title from Herman Melville, The Deadly Space Between gives a contemporary setting to what is essentially a Gothic fable. The narrator, Toby Hawk, is an 18-year-old who lives in a family of successful, unconventional women: his mother, Isobel, just 15 years his senior, is a painter on the brink of commercial success; his great-aunt Luce is a wealthy textile designer; and her partner, Liberty, is a barrister. Yet despite his unorthodox upbringing in an atmosphere of free-spirited independence, Toby's world is a sheltered round of school and domesticity that remains undisturbed until his mother begins a new relationship with an enigmatic older man, a Swiss scientist known only as Roehm. Embarking on a seduction aimed as much at Toby as at Isobel, Roehm becomes the sinister centre of their world, inspiring both fear and worship, but giving nothing of himself away. As Toby struggles to adapt to what is happening, his search takes him and Isobel to the Alps and to a chilling, if not entirely unpredictable, conclusion.

Duncker lectures in literary theory and is the author of numerous essays on 19th- and 20th-century literature, and her book is rich in intertextuality, with the usual references to Freud, Faust and Frankenstein. We have come to expect her fiction to challenge boundaries and frontiers, of gender, sexuality or sanity. Here, the line crossed is one of desire: as it begins to dominate, the once certain parameters of Toby's life become blurred and the darkest regions of the psyche emerge into the everyday. And with the insidious invasion of Roehm and the subsequent disintegration of relationships, the language becomes more visceral.

However, what starts as an elegant, psychologically astute exploration of the way in which jealousy, love and fear combine to shape identity almost loses its way. Duncker is simply too good to need clumsy emotional signposts, such as Freud's Wolf Man or a Weber opera, and the extended metaphor of overcoming mountains as the ultimate human endeavour is overdone to the point of disappearing down its own crevasse. Fortunately, her novel is redeemed in the end, not through shouting, but through quiet understatement.