Clever boy

The Bedroom of the Minister's Wife

Philip Hensher <em>Chatto & Windus, 208pp, £10</em>


In the stories of Philip Hensher everyone is searching for something: for money, a house, a lover, even for a lost past. A woman looking at a house for sale in a newspaper feels "her own want move inside her like a child". An academic whose wife has died chokes on his food in a restaurant when he attempts to speak about his loss. "Here in this restaurant, this unfamiliar good restaurant, something was sticking in his throat." Later, he comes to believe that his wife is speaking to him through the Internet.

Hensher anatomises human motivation quite ruthlessly as his characters pursue, revel in or suppress their true desires. "A Geographer", like so many of the stories in this collection, dwells on a moment when desire is revealed. Bruno, "a nice boy of thirty-seven", works quietly all week in the London office of an Italian bank, and then cruises on Hampstead Heath on Friday night. Inevitably, he meets a young rent boy; the chance of love ruptures Bruno's carefully constructed equanimity. In "Forbidden Etudes", a young concert pianist dreamily aspires to a life of poverty and struggle, but then he experiences real financial and spiritual poverty while on tour with an older woman cellist. He is bewildered to discover that he isn't a romantic after all, and when success arrives he accepts it with only the slightest worry about how he might be changed.

Mostly Hensher's characters don't pursue their desires and return, after brief adventures, to an entirely familiar world. But their glimpses of what real fulfilment might mean stay with them, and with the reader.

Hensher's prose stretches and enlarges when he animates desire. Matthew's thoughts become strung out and loosely linked, as he ponders the Internet and his dead wife. "He contemplated the consolation of a ghost with the unarguable knowledge that there was nothing as good and kind as that here; the unarguable familiarity with the unnameable thing which could search the great invisible universe, and, in less than a second, infallibly find him."

And Bruno's possibility of love strikes him, in a memorable sentence, "slower than the break of slow thunder after bright distant lightning and there came the thought, like no words, of hands moving over flesh in order to know it; like the hands and minds of geographers swarming over the maps and lands of remote and unvisitable continents".

There's often a cold cleverness to much of Hensher's writing, and some of the stories can read like the work of a callous teenager - Hensher as the smart kid who twists the teacher's words and throws them back at her. In "Work" and "A Chartist", unnecessarily complicated and sometimes nasty plotting disguises the thinness of the storylines. But for the most part Hensher is acute, and his prose is gorgeous. He reminds us that even the briefest glimpse of the possibility of desire is worth celebrating.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities