Novel of the week

Broken Bodies

Sally Emerson <em>Little, Brown, 293pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0316854832

"A tall young American, Patrick Browning . . . glanced over at Anne who was slim, with long red wavy hair and a pale complexion which bordered on sickliness but helped to create a fragile beauty." In this characteristically florid sentence, two historians working on the life of Mary Elgin, the adulterous wife of Lord Elgin of the Marbles, meet in front of the sculptures themselves in the British Museum. They are, like Mary, adulterous. Anne is sleeping with Alexander, a married antiquities dealer, and Patrick is sleeping with Victoria, the wife of a shady journalist called Charles. Patrick is immediately attracted by Anne's physical beauty, but is irritated when she keeps hogging the books that he needs in the British Library. Anne, on the other hand, wants to know the contents of Mary Elgin's diaries, which are in Patrick's possession. These journals, which he is slowly transcribing, form the most moving and simply written part of the book: "When I first met [Lord Elgin], he was a handsome man, tall, dignified. Now he suffers from rheumatism, headaches, constant pains, and his face is deformed, the nose quite rotted away."

Later in the novel, desire for the diaries becomes more widespread, as rumours circulate that they contain an amazing revelation, which turns out to be that Mary stole the head of Hermes before Lord Elgin shipped the torso back to Britain. Alexander wants the diaries because he lusts after the head; Charles wants them because it would make a good story and rescue his reputation; Victoria wants them because she thinks finding the treasure would make her rich, offering her freedom from her husband. The plot detours through ransacked rooms, gothic ruins, muggings, the discovery of a later set of diaries, a body floating down the river and a mad dash to Greece.

When Anne and Patrick kiss for the first time: "Whatever it was amazed him, destroyed his insides and threw them away, replacing them instead with a dark, intense tornado pleasure which was both very precise, to do with these lips and this body, and very imprecise, as it seemed to gather everything up that was important in the world - from plagues and pestilence to the scent of roses."

Skirting close to romantic fiction (Anne and Patrick's love must find a way) and melodrama, Broken Bodies nevertheless has considerable power. It keeps you gripped, compelling you to continue reading to the last page. But perhaps it would be better if you did not, because all the loose ends are neatly tied up, as they were at the end of Sally Emerson's previous novel, the political thriller Heat, which is incomparably the better and denser book. Emerson has an enormous gift for holding the reader in a close and forceful grip. At the moment, she is turning out very superior romantic thrillers. She could be in a different rank altogether. Her talents, you feel, could take her anywhere.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures