Novel of the week

Sheer Blue Bliss

Lesley Glaister <em>Bloomsbury, 283pp, £15.99</em>

Haven't most people dreamt of murdering someone at some point in their lives? The best thriller writers, such as Lesley Glaister, aren't afraid to ponder such notions. Technically, Glaister isn't a thriller writer; her work tends to avoid fully-fledged murder but all her eight novels are pacy, dark narratives which explore the ways in which so-called ordinary people often teeter on the edge of psychosis. Her novels might be termed "suburban gothic", because of their contemporary, suburban settings, and the sense of menace she brings to innocent domestic chores - cooking, washing up or having a bath.

Sheer Blue Bliss tackles some disturbing moral problems; and as always these conundrums are wrapped up in a taut "thrillerish" narrative. An elderly, reclusive artist, Constance Benson, has ventured out of her secluded Norfolk cottage to take part in the unveiling of her most famous portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The work is of her former lover, the eccentric visionary and botanist Patrick Mount, who famously disappeared in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, Connie soon finds herself being pursued by an unhinged young man, who is searching for Mount because he believes that Mount's experiments with plants led to him discovering the elixir of life.

It is exactly the kind of narrative that Ruth Rendell might have arrived at, but Glaister's execution is subtler. Her obvious sympathy for Tony, the psychotic of the story, pays rich dividends as she highlights his irritations with other people and their music and clothes, their bedrooms and kitchens. When his internal thought process spills over into external violence, the transition seems perfectly natural, even logical.

Connie's memories of her early sexual relationship with Mount are complex. Mount was virtually Connie's adopted father and yet, in one scene, he forces himself on her in an abusive fashion. This is troubling because Mount is no ogre and Connie is not a passive victim. She seems to enjoy the power imbalance in their relationship - it's obviously exciting for her. Nor does abuse unhinge her, although it's clear she pays a price for it.

There are weaknesses in the novel - a journalist who seems too naive to be believable and an unconvincing denouement. Still, Glaister's concise, rhythmic prose is a pleasure to read and her depiction of male psychosis - and the female response to it - is both brave and challenging.

Francis Gilbert

The "NS" is publishing a winter fiction special next week

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again