Frankly nightmarish

<strong>Homunculus</strong>

Hugh Paxton <em>Macmillan New Writing, 294pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 02300

If you're the suspicious sort who thinks that authors and reviewers are in cahoots, don't let me dissuade you. I never met Hugh Paxton, the author of a gleefully deranged new novel set in civil-war Sierra Leone, but for several years I worked on a Tokyo newspaper of which he was the travel columnist.

Paxton's stories would arrive like clockwork, fortnightly, from unfeasibly far-flung corners of the globe. So well travelled was he that sceptical sub-editors wondered if he had, in fact, simply read a few guidebooks and made up his articles. Homunculus is proof - if it were ever needed - that their suspicions were wrong. Evidently, Paxton's imagination runs to rather darker subjects than the "what ho!" japes and scrapes of his travel writing.

By "darker", I mean frankly nightmarish: child soldiers, the mutilation of toddlers, casual slaughter, male gang rape and, not least, the eponymous Ebola-ridden semi-sentient monsters stitched together from the body parts that so liberally strew the pages of Homunculus. This is one despatch from a place you'd never, ever put on your holiday list.

Namibia is currently home to the author and his family, so Paxton is familiar with the dark heart of Africa that he remorselessly illuminates. I suspect, also, that a professional lifetime of hanging out in foreign correspondents' clubs the world over has given him a ready fund of first-hand stories of horror. (The Freetown FCC, incidentally, is only one of many parts of the Sierra Leonean capital blown sky high in the course of the narrative, though Paxton reserves the nastiest fate for a CNN crew - videotaped death-by-flaming-tyre.) Homunculus reads like a sick compilation of every report ever of anarchy in Africa, in one back-to-back orgy of senseless violence.

Not a book to pack for the beach, then? Well, here lies Paxton's achievement: he makes all this full-on nastiness not just compulsive reading, but actually bloody funny. The plot is simple: a mad scientist passing himself off as a Catholic priest creates a race of "bio-robots", no great lookers, but handy with bombs, AKs and rusting, notch-bladed pangas. With the help of a South African mercenary, the monsters are to be auctioned off to the world's undesirables - Japanese cultists, Colombian drug-smugglers, and Zionist fanatics. By way of a backdrop, Sierra Leone goes merrily to hell, as the revolutionary army and its Liberian cronies attempt a coup, while the teenage RUF General Butt Naked fulfils power-crazed ambitions of his own.

Homunculus certainly isn't without its faults. The horror starts on the first page and ends on the last, with no let-up in between. Judicious pacing would have given the narrative some needed variation and tension. Also, while Paxton is excellent on the battle juju practised by the African fighters (painting it as absurd yet oddly understandable), the mystical and alchemical elements surrounding the creator of the homunculi and his 600-year-old rival seem to have dropped out of the sky from another book entirely. The sub-plot involving the Aum cultists also seems extraneous - there to showcase the author's knowledge of Japan.

But this book is gripping - in so many ways. Homunculus deserves a proper paperback outing, with better cover art and attention to typos (this edition having apparently been copy-edited by someone favouring a random distribution of "its" and "it's"). In an afterword, Paxton expresses the desire to write a follow-up - pos sibly, he teases, set in England. Flyblown Frankenstein's monsters running amok over the South Downs aren't a pretty prospect, yet Homunculus leaves you with a strange, sick yen to see him do it.

Victoria James is a television producer