Novel of the week


Phil Whitaker <em>Phoenix House, 256pp, £12.99</em>

Authenticity and originality are two of the most overrated qualities in contemporary fiction. Novels are praised for no more than accurately representing new slices of life, and you have only to look at the inexorable success of biography to see the value placed on reality, as in hard facts, as opposed to fictional truth. Often the casualty of this subtle battle is imagination, as though novelists are collectively cowed by a crippling dictum to write only from experience. The result: the novel as a kind of reportage, notes from beyond the edge of innocence. Given this gloomily literal climate, it's refreshing to come across a novel that pays it so little regard.

Triangulation is Phil Whitaker's second novel, yet already he appears to know exactly what he is doing. This is no small achievement. Most writers early in their careers are rocket-fuelled by hope alone - the hope that their passion to set things down will also set them on the right track. This seldom works, and novelists are often shown to lack all conviction when things fall apart before the novel is done. Not so Whitaker, who clearly had a plan and stuck to it with a kind of calm, clinical determination; at times he exhibits an almost pathological attention to form and structure. That he has been a GP for the past decade may have something to do with it, but it doesn't explain his finesse, which I suspect is natural.

Whitaker's first novel, Eclipse of the Sun, was published in 1997, two years after he graduated with an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He won a Betty Trask award and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys prize, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award. Eclipse of the Sun was set in India, yet it was an India of the author's imagination: he had been there only once, nine years before, for two weeks. He researched the novel mainly on the Internet. The rest he made up. His second novel is similarly attached to authentic experience by a flimsy thread: it was initially inspired by a lecture on cartography and is partly set in an unnamed African state at the end of the 1950s. Triangulation is the term used to describe an out-moded method of surveying; it refers, too, to the triangular relationship at the heart of the story.

The first-person point of the triangle is held by a nerdy, well-meaning, yet subtly dangerous character, John. On retirement he takes a tortuous train journey to visit his one-time love, Helen. At least he hopes she will be there. His journey is, in truth, a journey of the heart, and its purpose is as unclear as his claim on Helen's affections is tenuous. She was always in love with another man, whose story is told in flashback through diary entries and correspondence from Africa.

What united the characters in the past is shown to be as shadowy and deceptive as their relationships once were to one another: all three worked for the directorate of over- seas surveys, an obsolete organisation that sometimes produced false maps in an attempt to benefit from forgotten skirmishes in dark corners of the empire. And as John travels closer to the geographical heart of England in search of lost time, there is the sense of his past - and all notions of empire - dissolving. Time and memory have played a trick, and this heart of darkness is no more than a set of redundant maps, a dimly recalled falsehood.

As a second novel, it is hard to praise Triangulation enough. Out of step with the times, it is written in a faintly archaic, syntactically immaculate style. On the one hand this style is impressive for its economy and elegance (while also being a perfect vehicle for nostalgia). On the other, it provokes suspicions of pastiche: has Phil Whitaker found his voice, or is he just a well-read, proficient mimic? There is also a striking absence of passion. Apart from that, it's just what the doctor ordered.

Candida Clark's novel, "The Last Look", is published by Vintage, £5.99

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes