Pleasure zone

Swift as Desire

Laura Esquivel <em>Doubleday, 256pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0385602766

Ten years ago, the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel published a sexy little novel called Like Water for Chocolate. A romance with recipes, its message was simple: those who love life, love food; only those who understand the pleasures of the table can enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. The book - and this was long before Joanne Harris dished up a similar confection in the form of Chocolat - sold like hot (rosewater-scented, pistachio-studded) cakes all over the world and was later made into a successful film.

Esquivel's latest offering is not half so delicious as its predecessor. Swift as Desire tells the story of Jubilo, who, thanks to his Mayan ancestry, was born with a pointed head and an extrasensory gift for reading between the lines: when others speak, only he can see what is really written on their hearts. Having successfully reunited his bickering Mayan-speaking grandmother and her haughty Spanish-speaking daughter-in-law - he speaks both languages but, happily, his interpretation is not always literal - Jubilo decides he will use his gift to set the world to rights. With his childhood sweetheart, Lucha, by his side, he embarks on a career as Mexico's most diligent telegraph operator, succinctly putting into words the thoughts and desires of those less articulate than himself.

Jubilo's tale is told in flashback; when the book begins, he is an old man, unable to speak or get out of bed. His grown-up daughter, Lluvia, aware that her father is not long for this world, is determined to find out why her parents - who were once so much in love - slept in separate rooms throughout her childhood and separated once she had left home. More than that, she longs to hear the authentic voice of her beloved father one more time before he dies. In an antiques shop, she finds an old telegraph machine; a crash course in Morse code (her father's third language) and, with the machine's help, the lines of communication are open again at last.

Thus Lluvia finally discovers what caused the rift between Jubilo and his darling Lucha. The only trouble is that, along the way, Esquivel gets so caught up in sermonising - the telegraph, she reminds us piously, was once considered every bit as revolutionary and important as the internet, and we would do well to remember the trusty fellows who operated it - that she skims over her characters' motivations with the lightning speed of e-mails whizzing down an ISDN line. Whoosh! Startlingly, even the rape of a minor character is dealt with in little more than a sentence.

And then, as if realising that every strand of her story has been prematurely tied up, Esquivel resorts to cliche: what moves her most about words, she says, is "their capacity for transmitting love". Communicate with those you care about (even if you have to do it, as Lluvia does, in Morse code) and all your troubles will melt away. This fable - glib, hackneyed and written in prose as clunking and monotonous as the sound of an ancient electric mixer - was written in memory of Esquivel's father who, so the dust jacket informs us, worked his own "lifelong magic" as a telegraph operator. Well, filial love is no excuse, I'm afraid. The author has used far too much sugar and not nearly enough spice.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Daily Telegraph

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot