Herculean labour

The Hesperides Tree

Nicholas Mosley <em>Secker & Warburg, 312pp, 15.99</em>

ISBN 0436205483

In Greek mythology, the Hesperides tree, or Tree of Life, bore the golden apples that Heracles had to obtain as his 11th labour. The apples were closely guarded by the daughters of Atlas and by a dragon entwined around the trunk of the tree. The answers to the fundamental questions preoccupying the characters in Nicholas Mosley's religious parable are just as closely guarded. Whereas Heracles was famed for his enormous strength, Mosley uses a vulnerable 18-year-old boy with a life-threatening illness to try to discover the answers to the secrets of life, and to why he seems destined to die prematurely.

The Tree of Life has been transported, in this elliptical work, to a rocky outcrop off the west coast of Ireland, a wildlife station from where biologists can study birds that appear to be mutating at a rapid rate. The boy, who considers himself to be a mutant because of his illness, a congenital skull weakness, is drawn to the island, which, in the Dark Ages, was used as a sanctuary by monks escaping persecution.

The novel turns on a love affair between the hero and a local sculptress called Julie, who shares his quest for knowledge. Their relationship is conducted with a kind of telepathy, such is the strength of their mutual connection. Other relationships in the book follow similar patterns, where coincidence and chance meetings appear to have been preordained. Sex is portrayed throughout as naive and childlike, and portentous reference is made to Adam and Eve. When the couple have been on the island for some time, they tritely ask: "If we made love, might we not lose paradise?"

The hero allows himself to be carried along with the flow of events, putting his faith in the idea that, as long as he doesn't question what is happening, it will lead him to the ultimate answers. "God doesn't tell you what to do does he? You just notice, or you do not, that things happen apparently naturally."

The novel becomes more explicitly religious - and more obscure - as the real and unreal seem to merge. The vulnerable hero's computer-obsessed friend, Edward, even states that "reality is nonsense", to which one is tempted to say: "Go on, mate, pull the other one." Still, for all its wilful obscurity and opaque sermonising, The Hesperides Tree is a challenging and unusual book, a return to form for Nicholas Mosley - the son of the infamous black-shirted fascist, Oswald - who remains one of the most neglected novelists in Britain.

Matthew Jennings has just completed a novel, Stealing Bananas

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?