Novel of the week

The Metaphysical Touch

Sylvia Brownrigg <em>Gollancz, 444pp, £16.99</em>

I was living in Norwich in 1994 when the city's central library went up in flames. There was something upsetting about this event; a feeling of loss, but also of violation. The burning of books. The ability to communicate complex ideas through language is so fundamental to our status as the planet's dominant life-form that destruction of the written word, whether by accident or intent, strikes at what we hold most precious: ourselves, our sense of self. Text, as a kind of downloaded hard copy of our collective intelligence, is a potent symbol.

This is the wheel on which Sylvia Brownrigg's remarkable debut novel turns. The story opens in the aftermath of another fire: the Berkeley/Oakland inferno of 1991, which laid waste much of the University of California's northern campus. Emily Piper, known as Pi, is a postgrad philosophy student whose apartment is gutted. All her possessions have been lost: her books, her research notes, her unfinished dissertation on Kant . . . all irreplaceable, all destroyed. Overnight, the slate of her life has been wiped clean. For Pi, the shock of her loss is the equivalent of prolonged cold turkey. From this premise, Brownrigg, who read philosophy at Yale, sets a materialist conundrum: if matter is the fundamental existent against which everything else must be explained, then how to find new meaning in a life devoid of everything that matters to you?

Pi's response is to flee. She goes to stay with a friend's aunt, Abbie, and her young daughter in a small coastal town, taking a menial job in a photocopying shop. Bookless, project-less, detached from her associates at Berkeley, she restricts her philosophising to an internal overhaul of self-analysis and adjustment. In these thoughtful passages, Pi - bright, engaging, complex - emerges as a fictional creation of depth, despite an occasional deadening of the narrative pace by excessive detail. The progression from short stories, at which Brownrigg has previously excelled, to the longer form is fraught with such pitfalls. The result here is a delay in developing the central storyline: the "encounter" between Pi and J D, the man who provides release from her intellectual confinement. Not until page 160 does she become aware of him, although the reader has been privy to a series of extracts from J D's "Diery" - the journal of an unemployed, suicidal depressive, posted on the Internet. Pi joins a cult readership, hooked to his account as he clears a psychological path towards his own death.

She is no mere groupie, however. Hers are the only messages to breach his cordon of anonymity; hers alone are the e-mails to which he replies. They become web pals. Forced by circumstances to examine the state of their own lives, they have much to share. From tentative beginnings, their electronic correspondence grows increasingly self-revealing; a cerebral intimacy, but with a gathering undercurrent of flirtatiousness and verbal foreplay. These exceptionally well-crafted exchanges crank up anticipation of an eventual meeting, a technologically elaborate blind date between two people who don't even know one another's real names.

Brownrigg, having involved us in the separate plights of Pi and J D, offers the on-screen relationship as a signal of hope. Will he inspire her recovery from traumatic loss? Will she deflect him from suicide? Will they meet? While J D seems content to limit their friendship to e-mail, this is not enough for Pi. His thoughts and words - his text - are no longer adequate. She wants to experience the real, physical J D, as well as the virtual one; she wants him to see, to touch, to love (possibly). This neatly pulls the novel's key theme back into focus: what is "real" and what is "illusory", in a world where people and things can be deleted at a stroke?

One of several fine achievements in this novel is the balance struck between storytelling and ideas. This is a refreshingly intelligent work by an author unafraid to be serious, but saved from dryness by her humanity, the freshness of her prose and the passion of her characters.