Fiction - Fatal attraction

Sleep With Me

Joanna Briscoe <em>Bloomsbury, 306pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0747579954

We may think we've reached safe harbour, but how easily, almost culpably, we are undone. It helps if the cracks in our character are prised open by a mistress of manipulation such as Sylvie, who occupies the shadowy centre of Joanna Briscoe's third novel.

Sylvie's chosen subjects are Richard and Lelia, urban sophisticates inhabit- ing a cosy world. They live in Bloomsbury; Lelia teaches at London University, Richard is literary editor of the Guardian. Their lives are "ripe for disruption", and disrupted they are: first by Lelia's pregnancy and then by the arrival of Sylvie, a figure of perverse eroticism.

Tales of obsessive love rarely unravel so skilfully the tangle of drives and desires propelling the lover (or stalker). In Sylvie, Briscoe has achieved a genuinely sinister portrait of a damaged, dangerous psyche. There is a dreadful absence at the heart of her personality and, appropriately enough, she makes herself a cipher, unreadable and unobtainable, all the better to stoke the passions of those around her.

As the tale unfolds through the separate narrations of Richard and Lelia, Briscoe delineates two deep human instincts, running parallel and then painfully diverging. Lelia pictures her baby "with folded limb buds . . . heart hardly bigger than a poppy seed and a tongue of its own . . . That fact alone filled me with a rush of love." Richard, increasingly uncomfortable with the "new webby, yolky sacs and weavings" inside Lelia, falls victim to Sylvie's tantalising charms.

Briscoe's description of sexual arousal from the male perspective suggests considerable imaginative sympathy. If you want to know how it feels to have blue balls, pay a visit to Sylvie's psychosexual torture chamber. Yet just as Briscoe's characters are flexibly AC/DC, so both sexes will recognise the electric current she describes: "The man next to her half-turned to call over a waiter, and his movement pushed her, unbalancing her momentarily so that her hand jolted against my thigh. My skin leapt to life."

Less successful is Richard himself - a blokish sort of bloke, Guernsey-wearing and sea-loving, bred in Cornwall for the great outdoors, but also a neurotic who dreads the summer. His back story, which gives him a chaotic home life as one of many siblings with a loving mother and hopeless dad, is meant, I think, to explain his ambivalence about babies. But men, let's face it, don't need to be dysfunctional to dread swapping sex for sleepless nights. He has an air of fantasy about him (how many tall, rugged hacks do you know?) and his "depth" does not really convince.

Much better is Lelia's story, which centres on a disturbing episode from a childhood French exchange that is half-remembered but mainly suppressed. It is this submerged secret that gives what might be a tragicomedy of sexual manners in a familiar social set a sense of noirish disquiet, and provides a motor for the mounting horror of the novel's final section.

As powerful as the story about sex is, it is symbolically trumped, in the end, by the story about birth. Not many writers attempt labour, and fewer still labour in crisis; I suspect it has been regarded as too quotidian, too brutal, too embarrassing. (A notable exception is Peter Carey's The Tax Inspector, which culminates in a brilliant, nightmarish birth scene.) In Sleep With Me, Lelia's labour makes an almost unbearable but utterly compelling climax.

This ingenious jigsaw of near misses, secret assignations and days revisited by one then another character is as carefully plotted as any thriller. To give more away would be to spoil a literary novel that takes suspense very seriously indeed.