Novel of the week

The Stone Council

Jean-Christophe Grange, translated by Ian Monk <em>Harvill Press, 373pp, £10</em

No one could ever accuse the French novelist Jean-Christophe Grange of being predictable, nor doubt his ability to settle his narrative in the furthest reaches of the imagination. In his debut thriller, Flight of the Storks, Grange found gruesome death in the migratory disappearance of birds - in the process, taking his story from Switzerland to a Bulgarian Gypsy encampment to the jungles of central Africa. Its follow-up, the much-lauded Blood-Red Rivers, which was made into a film, moved from football violence to the desecrated tomb of a child via an unlikely pairing of investigators. And now The Stone Council goes one better than either, sending its unusual heroine on a journey of self-discovery that begins in Paris and ends in Mongolia, culminating in a bloody metamorphosis that lies somewhere between Franz Kafka and Thomas Harris. Anyone who thought Hannibal required a leap of faith should try crossing the Channel instead of the Atlantic.

The Stone Council revolves around Diane Thiberge who, as a child, was the victim of an assault that killed all her impulses towards a relationship and built an inviolable barrier around her mind and body. Now aged 30, an ethnologist specialising in the study of predatory animals and an expert in martial arts - both, naturally, come in handy later - she believes she has at last found a meaning and purpose to her life when she adopts a young boy in Thailand, knowing nothing of his background. After returning to France, a road accident leaves her new son brain-dead, until a mysterious visit by an unknown doctor revives his chances. Almost immediately, the doctor becomes the first victim in a series of extraordinarily violent, ritualistic killings of former communists with a shared past - a past that relates to a nuclear fusion plant, and to an obsession with extrasensory powers that makes Diane believe her son has unwittingly become a conduit of sinister paranormal forces.

Grange's previous work has been compared to anything from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the gothic horror flick Les Yeux Sans Visage. Certainly, The Stone Council possesses the same striving for a form of higher nobility and, in the Faustian pacts that abound, in the flawed protagonists, the grip of the past and the futility of men trying to be gods, there is an intriguing attempt to lift the thriller into a form of surreal tragedy. This doesn't always work, partly because Grange labours too hard, and partly because Ian Monk's translation copes well with the book's pace and staggering brutality, but not with the more meditative and descriptive passages; any mention of "anti-radioactive parkas" or "Magi of the nuclear age" tends to make the prose read more like The Avengers than The Oresteia. But where the idea does succeed, in Diane's all-encompassing bond with her son, for example, the blend of pragmatism with spirituality is a refreshing contrast to the more transparent sensibilities of Grange's British and American contemporaries.

The bizarre final twist stretches all credulity, but if you are prepared to make that leap of faith - and what thriller doesn't require that? - the result is a complex, tightly plotted book which has, at its heart, a symbolic poignancy with an age-old message: that the dreams of one generation can all too easily turn into the nightmare of the next.

Nicola Upson is the New Statesman's crime fiction critic

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick