Mack the knife

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

Michel Faber <em>Canongate Books, 122pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 18419

Michel Faber's first novel, Under the Skin, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award, and perhaps deserved to win the overall prize, if only for some of the most gruesome and chilling passages I have ever read. His latest, a novella, is altogether different.

It begins promisingly enough. Sian is a woman of 34, with a pain in her hip and a hard lump in the flesh of her thigh. A qualified conservator specialising in the preservation of paper and parchment, she is on a dig near Whitby, resting after "the accident" in Bosnia, in which she lost a leg. She has terrifying dreams involving hands with huge fingers thrusting a blade deep into her throat.

Then it all goes rapidly downhill. Sian meets a handsome man out jogging, halfway up the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey. He has eyes that "twinkle with mischief"; is "muscled like a Greek statue"; jogs with a dog called Hadrian who has, claims Mack, "an eye for the ladies"; and betrays, as does the book in general, a rare talent for cliche and banal dialogue. "Call me Mack . . . Magnus. Latin for 'great'. Grisly, isn't it? Sounds like I've got a big head or something." Mack is a medical student in his final year in London who has come home to arrange his father's funeral. He brings Sian a family treasure: an old bottle with a scroll inside. The words "Confession of Thos. Peirson, in the Year of Our Lord 1788" are visible through the glass. Sian starts work on removing the scroll unharmed.

I want, I want, I want, thought Sian, when she first saw the muscly Mack in his sweaty T-shirt and shorts. Now, like Scheherazade, she brings to him each day a little bit more of the scroll's contents, which keep him interested. At first, it seems as if Thomas Peirson killed his daughter Mary, which excites Mack enormously. But it turns out that she killed herself after her lover deflowered and rejected her. Mack is less than gripped by this: "Yeah, but come on . . . To link whether you live or die to being dumped by a boyfriend . . . "

Then Sian discovers that Mary's father, who didn't want her suicide known, slashed his daughter's throat to make it look like murder, just so she could have a proper Christian burial. And we return neatly full circle to Sian's dreams.

Once the mystery is solved, Mack goes back to London, having given Hadrian to Sian, who no longer dreams of knives and big hands, and whose thigh has been operated on and relieved of a bit of stone that, unbeknown to her, had been embedded there since Bosnia. She takes to wondering about Mack and whether, some day, time will have "weathered him into the right man for her".

Stick to gruesome, Michel Faber, stick to chilling.

Vicky Hutchings works for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street