Skin deep

Until I find you

John Irving <em>Bloomsbury</em>,

ISBN 0747579903

In John Irving's A Widow For One Year, Ruth Cole, a writer, is asked by a fan: "Why do you repeat yourself?" Ruth concedes that she may have "signature eccentricities", but says that readers tend to complain about repetitions only in books they don't like, because "even in literature, if one likes something what is the objection to its being repeated?".

The exchange could easily be applied to Irving's novels, in which faces and places consistently reappear. For many readers this is an asset: the prostitutes, wrestlers and "bad" boyfriends are as reassuring and familiar as old friends. Such readers will, initially at least, take pleasure in Until I Find You - Irving's 11th novel - in which he returns to the private schools of New England and the red-light district of Amsterdam.

The action opens in 1969, when its hero, Jack Burns, is four. He spends several months traipsing around the port cities of northern Europe with his mother, in search of the man who impregnated and then abandoned her. Jack's mother is a tattooist of some skill who is known in the trade as "Daughter Alice". Jack's elusive father, William, is a gifted organist and an "ink addict" who is slowly covering every inch of his skin with the musical notes of his favourite hymns.

Jack and his mother travel all the way across Scandinavia, but their quest is un-successful, and they return to their native Canada so that Jack can attend school. He is sent to St Hilda's, an Anglican school where, as one of only a small group of male students, he becomes lost in "a sea of girls". From an early age he finds that women - particularly older women - are attracted to him, and his sexual education takes up a considerable part of the novel. For all Jack's many liaisons, however, his closest relationship is with the writer-to-be Emma Oastler, with whom he has a bond that is more sisterly than sexual.

Encouraged by the experience of playing female leads in school plays, Jack grows up to be a famous actor, specialising in cross-dressing roles. His father's absence casts a shadow over his life, however, tainting his relationships with women and souring things between him and his mother.

Although Until I Find You is permeated by a keen sense of melancholy, it lacks the controlled sentimentality of Irving's previous work. There is nothing here to match the emotive power of Walt's death in The World According to Garp, or the gut-punch finale of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even the death of one of the novel's most sympathetic characters fails to make an impact. Although this is an extremely long book, none of the characters is especially well developed, including Jack, who never shakes off an essential blankness.

There are inspired moments, such as Daughter Alice's funeral, where tattooed bikers rub shoulders with old girls of St Hilda's. And as always with Irving, things are never quite as predictable as you expect them to be. Ultimately, however, Until I Find You falls a long way short of his best work. Unlike Daughter Alice's tattoos, it fails to get under your skin.