Novel of the week


Richard House <em>Serpent's Tail, 160pp, £10</em>

ISBN 1852424389

It has taken Richard House five years to publish his second novel, Uninvited: not surprising, perhaps, given the act he set himself to follow. Bruiser, House's assured first novel, was a disturbing American road story about a boxer and a businessman, trapped in a hellish relationship of dependency and suspicion.

Sex, violence and dispossession also play an important part in Uninvited, though fans of the earlier novel may have misgivings when the action moves from the open road in Chicago to a London squat, ironically called Hopewell. House had an abundance of material in Bruiser (decaying roadside cafes and petrol stations, the gothic horrors of small-town hospitals, the scarred road itself), but there seems much less potential in a bunch of no-hopers roughing it in south-east London. Yet House again sketches his (in part autobiographical) terrain with dark exactitude.

Ian, the protagonist, has a form-filling day job and a fractious relationship with a rent collector, whom we initially assume to be his partner. Frustrated and unfulfilled, he is also painfully self-conscious of an arm deformity.

An assault on a work colleague, the threat of eviction for the squatters (after a drug-related accident) and the heaviness of the weather all add to a sense of imminent disaster. And indeed Ian's life soon begins to unravel. He goes home for a one-night stand with a doctor but, feeling uncomfortable about his arm and the flat's antiseptic decor, promptly leaves. He returns to Hopewell, now lit by the "acidic yellow" of a street lamp, and realises that all the internal walls have been removed. He retreats to the horizonless suburbia of his sister's home. He quits his job. His relationships become ever more rancorous.

As in Bruiser, House succeeds in making an apparently actionless narrative gripping through the power of description. When Ian takes a job as a courier, he fantasises about a new colleague, Peter. He notices a "pocket of shadow" under Peter's eyes, his skinny, unathletic arms, and imagines how soft his skin will be as his vest peeps open. The two begin an affair. Yet the romance is not sweeping or easy, but skewed, and a portent of further misery. When that misfortune comes, it is grotesque and grimly realised.

This is a startlingly bleak but transfixing novel. House is a master of flawed character and unexpectedly moving images. Uninvited ends as brutally and abruptly as Bruiser, yet, like the earlier book, stays disconcertingly with the reader. It is a strange paradox that an author called House should be so preoccupied with the perishable fragility of hearth and home. Please, not another five-year wait for novel number three.

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