Novel thoughts

Novel thoughts

For Ben Okri, the spiritual realm is more important than the material world. His 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, recorded the life of a "spirit-child", Azaro, who resists the calling of the other side and manages to survive in the physical world. The Famished Road was an attempt to combine the oral traditions of African storytelling with a more western bourgeois literary sensibility. It was his best work, because it was his least portentous and mannered.

In Arcadia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) is the story of a group of London film-makers who travel to mainland Europe to shoot a documentary on the subject of "Arcadia". Their journey is inexplicably shrouded in secrecy. Operations are masterminded by a shadowy, absent figure called Malasso, who slips the characters bloodstained notes warning them of their deaths.

The European setting (a departure for Okri) fits well with the novel's central preoccupation: the difficulty, in a cynical and materialistic age, of returning to paradise, whatever that may mean. Lao, the protagonist (and part-narrator), is an embittered TV presenter (aren't they all!) who rails incessantly against the "modern world". He is not alone in his disillusionment - the whole crew are on the "verge of nervous breakdowns". No wonder they're searching for paradise.

Okri scarcely bothers to describe his characters' physical appearances or environment. Instead, the novel is a succession of earnest disquisitions on all the usual Okri subjects: death, the worthlessness of material possessions, the futility of artistic enterprise (from which, presumably, he excludes this novel) and so on. But there is hope. As the novel progresses, the mood lightens, and by the end the characters are a little clearer on the true significance of their journey, even if they haven't made it to Arcadia.

Okri's portentous sermonising is often tiresome, as is his habit of using several words where one would do: "How strange, phoney, self-conscious, greedy, egotistical and childish people become when a camera is trained upon them." Good heavens, Ben. But the writing has a certain magisterial quality; Okri's disregard for plot and plausibility is perversely charming. In occasional flashes of humour, he shows that he is not incapable of laughing at his own pretensions. Would that he laughed more often.

Anne Enright's previous novel, What Are You Like?, a tale of twins separated at birth, was one of the most celebrated of recent times. Her latest, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), is set predominantly in 19th-century Paraguay at a time of traumatic nation-building. It begins: "Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854." (As openings go, this isn't bad, but not, perhaps, as arresting as the opening of Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York: "After I became a prostitute, I had to deal with penises of every imaginable shape and size.")

The coupling is brief: Lopez, heir to the wealth of Paraguay, repeats the action 20 times in all. But it has profound consequences. Eliza becomes pregnant. She returns with Lopez to his native land, where she lives as his mistress in Asuncion, becoming the "richest woman in the world".

It is immediately clear that the human body is one of the novel's central preoccupations. In direct contrast to Okri, Enright is an inveterate sensualist, fascinated by physicality. A couple of years ago, she wrote, in Prospect and elsewhere, about her own experience of pregnancy, and the best sections here are those dealing with Eliza's bodily vicissitudes.

Less successful are Enright's writerly tricks. For instance, having established Lopez and Eliza's congress, each of Lopez's coital thrusts prompts a flashback to Eliza's past (her mind is clearly not on the job). Later, the wars of the Lopez regime are obliquely reconstructed: the battle scenes are, for the most part, narrated by a disillusioned, drunken doctor, which serves only to detract from Eliza's story, with its origins in history. For all its exuberance, the experience of reading The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is unmemorable. Enright ought to return to the more simple, direct style of her earlier novels.

Something similar could be said of Chris Petit, author of a terrific thriller set in Ireland (The Psalm Killer) and a respected film-maker. His latest offering, The Human Pool (Scribner, £12.99), is set partly in present-day Europe and partly, like so much contemporary British fiction, during the Second World War. Petit is interested in concepts such as neutrality in times of war (much of the action takes place in Switzerland), and in the moral consequences of forced population shifts and human traffic with which we are still grappling today.

But the plot is so convoluted that it is hard to understand what's going on, which is a shame because Petit is a writer of considerable imaginative daring. The reader's effort isn't always repaid. There are occasional sloppy constructions ("the damp salt air and the proximity of the Atlantic . . . gave the city an air of fabulous melancholy"), and the real drama is lost amid the general monotony and muddle.