Slow puncture

My Lover's Lover

Maggie O'Farrell <I>Review, 322pp, £12.99

ISBN 0747271119

The first time Lily meets Marcus, she falls at his feet. For girls like Lily, you see, even negotiating one's way out of a taxi can prove calamitous. Marcus, an architect, has cornflower-blue eyes and, as he tells her at the party they attend that evening, a spare bedroom in his chilly warehouse flat. Lily, her hands grazed and sore, but her dignity temporarily restored, decides to bag it for herself. Being one of life's sleepwalkers (a part-time administrator, child-minder and bra-fitter, the haphazard Lily "doesn't believe in careers"), she fails to realise that no good can come of this impetuous arrangement. Men like Marcus are trouble - any fool can see that.

The room she is to rent, an indigo box, is still littered with a tangle of clothes and nail polish and books - the possessions of its previous inhabitant, Marcus's girlfriend Sinead. Lily says she'll take it anyway. These bits and pieces disappear when she moves in, but Sinead continues to make her presence felt in all sorts of gothic ways. Lily, who now unaccountably shares Marcus's bed as well as his home, finds herself unable to ask him what happened to his absent lover. So she assumes the worst. Why else would she be so spooked? Only the dead can haunt the living, can't they?

For Lily, then, the mundane business of sharing a flat, of navigating through city life, is suddenly ignited by fear. If she is to survive - and resist the temptation to go back home to her mother in Ealing - she must unearth the darkest secrets of her distant and self-consciously clever new flatmates. Who is - or was - Sinead, and why do Marcus and his mate find it so hard even to utter her name? Why did she leave in such a hurry? And why is her ghost, if indeed that is what she sees when she forces open her eyes in the dead of night, so keen for Lily to wrest herself from Marcus's embrace? If only she were not so staggeringly ill-equipped for such a task.

Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, After You'd Gone, was widely praised for its pared-down qualities and sense of place, and it was passed from reader to reader, an old-fashioned word-of-mouth literary hit. My Lover's Lover is unlikely to be so well loved. The main trouble lies with its whispery cast - a collection of unfathom-able, motiveless pencil sketches. O'Farrell's women fall in love or travel to remote regions of China to meet men they hardly know as casually as if they were flossing their teeth. Tongue-tied Lily is plain stupid. Drinking in a bar with Marcus, she tries a peanut. It is covered in "a kind of dusty coating". Could this mean it is dry-roasted? She finds such modern innovations almost as puzzling as the vanishing of Sinead.

O'Farrell's prose is also a let-down: sluggish and silted up with too many contrived and muddle-headed images. One character vaults "the blind hurdle" of her PhD thesis. What does this mean? Another bends to tie her shoelaces, only to find that they are as "slippery as liquorice". Isn't liquorice sticky? More than once, I found myself wondering why the author had used two or three clunking great adjectives when one (or none) would have done just as well. Why does an insect bite have to be a "raised red parabola"? Why can't it simply be itchy? Sometimes, caught in narrative cul-de-sacs of her own making, O'Farrell even falls back on cliche: the gleaming bathroom that res-embles a morgue; the tense heroine who rips beer mats into tiny pieces.

We are given occasional flashes of the writer that O'Farrell obviously longs to be - she is sure-footed when it comes to capturing the strangeness that comes with human intimacy, the way one can know a lover and yet not know them at all - but these passages are too mired by the rest of the book to crackle as they should. The climax of My Lover's Lover sighs like a slow puncture. By the time O'Farrell's gang of four staggered over the finishing line, this reader, for one, was spent with frustration at the missed opportunities.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer