Novel of the week

The Blue Mask

Joel Lane <em>Serpent's Tail, 215pp, £10</em>

Anyone who read Joel Lane's debut, From Blue to Black, will not be surprised that its follow-up, The Blue Mask, treads a thin line between disillusionment and hope, tenderness and destruction, violence and sex, and that it is underscored by the changing face of music, politics and love.

Changing faces, from the most literal meaning of the phrase to something far more subtle, is what this novel is all about. The Blue Mask takes an intensely personal slant on the big themes of love, identity and retribution, and turns them into something that is both moving and original. Neil and his boyfriend, Matt, are students at Birmingham University, sharing the usual habits of sex, drink, music and politics. Their relationship is based on trust, but when Matt breaks that bond at a party to celebrate Labour's 1997 election victory, the two fight and Neil follows a stranger on to a canal towpath to get even. There, the stranger attacks him, leaving his face mutilated beyond recognition, a patchwork of bruising and stitches that forms the mask of the title.

Neil undergoes extensive surgery, but no longer recognises the face that looks back at him from the mirror. His attempt to track down his attacker is a descent into darkness, a search for his own hidden, destructive self that leads him to question values he had always taken for granted. Rather than try to rebuild his old life, he forms a new and very different persona, which extinguishes all elements of a familiar past. Fascism, homophobia, sexism, suicide and death all take their part in this short narrative, and Lane's vision is, at times, almost unbearably bleak - Springsteen's Nebraska is, appropriately, his chosen soundtrack.

The theme of image versus identity could have dissolved into cliche, were it not for the controlled prose, which honours the complexities of Neil's struggle to differentiate between what he is and what has been done to him. Lane's recreation of the euphoria of that first Labour victory, as well as the disappointment that followed, has peculiar relevance in the present uneasy climate. Neil's tentative hopes - that a love with new rules will work out, that a post-Blair Labour Party might rediscover its conscience, and that Springsteen will record once more with the E Street Band - are far from unrealistic, however, especially as Bruce and the boys, after all, are now back together again.