Fiction - All Greek to me
Philip Hensher Fourth Estate, 326pp, £15.99
You don't catch Philip Hensher writing the same book twice. His previous novel, The Mulberry Empire, was a historical epic, a pastiche of various 19th-century authors. The Fit is a small-scale domestic tragicomedy about a book indexer who gets a fit of the hiccups when his wife leaves him.
As it is a nice day, John takes breakfast in the garden, acting in the over-casual manner of someone who has had a shock, though his own explanation to the reader is: "It is so hard to be distraught and heartbroken when you have the hiccups. That's what I think, anyway." The hiccups are printed as exclamation marks - "'!' I said" - which is quite effective.
A passing neighbour whom he has never met hears the hiccups and fetches a bottle of champagne. She predicts that after two glasses the hiccups will go. It doesn't work but, undaunted, she makes a lot of other predictions about John's future. John tells us that none of her predictions will come true and that she won't reappear until the end of the story.
Despite the ineffectiveness of the champagne cure, John, up to this point a non-drinker, is soon on a bottle a day. He takes up smoking as well, having heard that it might do the trick, which obviously it doesn't. His wife, Janet ("Yes, yes, we are called Janet and John. We know," he says), keeps phoning to see how he is. She claims to be in one foreign city after another, getting ever further away. She says, "Go and look in your wardrobe. The reason I left you, you'll find it there." A page later, he is searching for this clue "somewhere in her wardrobe", turning out the pockets of the clothes she has left until he finds a jotted phone number.
Instead of ringing it and finding out straight away that it is as harmless as we suspect (which it much later transpires to be), he assumes that the number belongs to her old boyfriend Gareth, the banker who originally bought her the house. He decides she has gone off with him.
This joke is more than a bit strained. The reader knows all along that Janet is referring to John's extensive collection of identical grey suits, on which he has briefed us earlier: "If your suits are all the same, you don't have to choose." He might be too lacking in self-awareness to realise this, but there is no plausible reason why he should misunderstand the term "your wardrobe" to mean Janet's own wardrobe, except that Hensher wants him to find the red-herring phone number - which does not lead to any significant plot developments anyway. Like much else in the book, from the contorted first paragraph to the perfunctory comedy index at the back, it is rather half-thought-out.
John tells us his life story. Apparently girls have always been prone to announce apropos of nothing that they have fallen in love with him. "That does not happen to everyone, I've found out," he notes in his Pooterish way, but he has come to take it for granted. We do not know what to make of this: John is precisely the kind of prissy, colourless man it couldn't happen to.
The novel is then knocked clean off balance when he reveals the dominant fact of his life: that one of his elder sisters was murdered in her teens. A different, third-person narrator takes over for a sequence recounting the terrible grief of his parents. They were told to take as much time off work as they liked, but they agonised over exactly how much would be right, the simplest decisions looming impossibly large. John's mother found him on the stairs rehearsing a brave little speech about how he was ready to go back to school. This is acutely observed and moving; but it is in the wrong novel.
John later recalls that the murder led to huge media coverage, "newspaper articles, magazines . . . sensational and horrible books". Although this proves important (another character exploits his connection with the crime for her own publicity-related ends), again it is wrong. His sister's body was found almost at once and the killer was caught within days; the police would not have needed to use the national media and there would have been no headlines for such a routine case.
John says the murder was 17 years ago, when he was ten. Elsewhere he says he has been with Janet for eight years. Elsewhere again, he says they first met four years after he came down from university and started work as an indexer. If you work it out, he must have gone up to university aged 12. You begin to wonder if the book was turned out in a hurry to fulfil a contract.
A third-person narrator intervenes again to tell us what Janet has been up to; not, in fact, going round the globe, but staying put on a Greek island.We are introduced to the topography, history, economy and people of the island, which is pleasant but weirdly irrelevant. She makes friends in a taverna with a woman called Marina: "The querulous noise of Marina's voice, she heard it but in a foreign language . . ." Now normally, that expression means the listener is startled or distracted, so that familiar words become so much babble. Here it just means that Marina is speaking Greek, which is, um, a foreign language. Meanwhile in London, a comedy German, a group of crass art students and a posh old lady, all well drawn but mostly unrelated to anything, pop up and pop off again. Yet although The Fit is a curiosity, a compendium of the things that Hensher happened to think about at the time of composition, it is a highly readable curiosity.