Lost illusions

Flight Patterns

Alan Mahar <em>Gollancz, 285pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0575067217

Although a good half of the work is set in the bright, disturbing near-present, the serious action in Alan Mahar's neatly schematised first novel takes place on a summer afternoon in 1957. Death hangs in the air - literally so in the case of a French "birdman" booked to appear at a Liverpool air show, who tumbles disastrously from the sky before an audience composed of a young boy, Graham, and his beery dad.

Meanwhile, back at the recreation ground, Graham's mother, Cissie, and her sister stand haplessly by as the latter's elderly husband drops dead of heart failure. Linked only by the tannoy announcements, each of these simultaneous deaths turns out to have an unheralded significance for Graham's adult career.

A third of a century later, in a city transfixed by the Hillsborough disaster, Graham returns to his boyhood stomping ground. Dad is long dead by this time. Cissie, on the other hand, clings stubbornly on to her flower shop, with the aid of a black girl named Marva. To her long-estranged son, gingerly revisiting these lost landscapes - working as a cook in an upmarket hotel and fruitlessly pursuing glamorous, eco-aware Michelle - the past figures as a kind of unexploded bomb, needing careful handling and quite likely to go off in one's face.

Predictably enough, Cissie's death brings a roomful of skeletons gambolling out of the vault. Their revelations are perhaps less important (although top marks to Mahar for his neatly punned title) than the atmosphere in which they take place. Full of dense evocations of lost time and revealing little glances at mundane lives, Flight Patterns carries a few first-novel fault lines: the author's determination to make every exchange of dialogue count up to ten, so to speak, can be a touch wearying, while there is a mild staginess about incidental remarks of the "Yes, history can weigh you down, can't it?" variety.

To balance this, Mahar has a nice line in off-centre Merseyside chatter (the scenes in which Graham fences round a wary ex-schoolfriend are particularly well done). He can also be very funny at the expense of modern fads - notably in a scene where the hotel manager hosts a staff seminar on "What is Quality?". If the eventual unravelling of Graham's parentage is no more than routine, the finale manages to spring some unexpected surprises, and the reader leaves Flight Patterns with the agreeable sense of some faintly unpromising material knocked into alluring new shapes. Even more mysterious than the fog hanging over Graham's early life, though, is the refusal of practically every literary editor in London to do so much as acknowledge Alan Mahar's existence. Decent first novels need reviews.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet