Novel of the week


Tobias Hill <em>Faber & Faber, 248pp, £9.99</em>

Your opinion of this atmospheric first novel will partly be driven by your experience of the London transport system that shadows its every move. From the opening sentence, a labyrinth of stairwells, tunnels, substations, unmapped corridors and disused platforms is uncannily realised as the guts of a huge animal: "The tunnel air sighs, open-mouthed, Haaah." Readers who frequently use Camden Town station, where the main character, a Polish loner named Casimir, is employed, and where a series of mysterious murders is committed, will not be comforted by his portrait of it as a fragile subter- ranean city.

Casimir is our frightened guide through the dark. Deep among the ghosts and echoes, he discovers a dispossessed subculture and becomes romantically involved with Alice, who lives in the corridors of long-forgotten South Kentish Town station. When it becomes apparent that she could be the next victim of a serial killer who targets young blonde women, we are propelled towards a genuinely thrilling denouement.

The clever trick of Underground is that Casimir himself remains a relatively blank canvas - an outsider capable of only the most rudimentary human relations. His daily routines amount to an inscrutable but empty life. He takes long, topographically accurate walks around London, eschews the romantic postcard city that fed his childhood imagination, fears for the well-being of the homeless and encounters lone kite-flyers by the Thames who offer him sympathy ("poor cunt"). Among his few possessions are three books: the London A to Z and Polish and English editions of Zbigniew Herbert's poetry.

Hill's approach to character works if you accept Casimir as a fictional manifestation of our collective experience of modern London. He explores the unconsciously agreed etiquette that mediates our behaviour as passengers on the Underground, stripping many passengers of their personalities. For this reading, it is entirely appropriate that we come to understand Casimir in terms of what he is holding back, even though, paradoxically, his past is neatly laid out for us in a series of childhood episodes, related through alternate chapters.

The weaknesses of the novel arise, perhaps, from the way the imagery and structure are forced to demonstrate symmetry between Casimir's childhood and adulthood; as a child, for instance, his favourite place was a disused mine shaft in the local woods. The important links between Casimir's Polish and English lives, such as his relationship with his father and the larger racial and religious experiences that have influenced his upbringing, are also rather glibly skirted over. And whatever reading you impose on the book's intentions, Casimir still seems too good and explicable under his laconic, slightly tortured exterior.

Still, it is hard to overestimate Hill's descriptive powers. The Underground network is evoked so convincingly it delivers a considerable emotional punch, as if this underground and its hideous crimes are telling us something uncomfortable about ourselves and the city we choose to live in.

At other times, we get right inside Casimir's head, to see how in his own personal underground of the mind he is able to make people reappear at will and hear comments that have not been said.

It is alarmingly refreshing to find a young English novelist who is prepared to write realistically about ordinary lives in a present-day English city. This novel reaffirms that Faber & Faber - so long becalmed and over-reliant on a predictable formula at the beginning of the decade - is once more publishing vibrant new writing.

Douglas McCabe, a former journalist on the "Bookseller", works for Waterstone's

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie