This is the story of Rudolf Nureyev's life, made into fiction. For much of it, the gifted and charismatic ballet dancer is engulfed by people - family, friends, lovers, patrons, fans, fellow dancers, fellow celebrities, photographers, bodyguards, domestic staff, hangers- on. Yet seldom has the hero of a novel appeared such a lonely figure: a man who loved and hated himself in equal measure, and who provoked others to feel the same towards him, who abused his body with dancing and then with the trappings of success. But essentially, and for all the clamour and glamour, Nureyev was isolated. We see him here, metaphorically, as he was in performance: spotlit on stage before an audience of hundreds, adored by them and needy of their adoration, performer and spectators within touching distance but forever beyond one another's grasp. The cliche of fame is simultaneously to be known by everyone and by no one. As Meryl Streep put it: "When I walk into a room people don't see Meryl Streep, they see 'Meryl Streep'." Nureyev, too, lived much of his life inside inverted commas.
The task of the biographer, then - or of the novelist who recasts a real life as fiction - is to show the man once those inverted commas are removed. McCann attempts this by marrying the two forms. He merges his own inventions, adaptations and conjecture with researched fact, and his own events, characters and dialogue with those that are a matter of record. Structurally, the book has the feel of a biography, tracing Nureyev's life chronologically and using verbatim historical archives - auction sales lists of the dancer's possessions, and extracts from diaries, letters, newspapers.
In its style, however, as well as its creation (or re-creation) of scenes and its delving into characters' minds, Dancer is unmistakably novelistic. The mix of skilled storytelling and biographical rigour is, for the most part, effective. Imagine Anthony Burgess and Richard Holmes collaborating to write a novel, and you have something of the flavour.
But McCann may have done too much research. There are times - in Nureyev's "diary" sections especially - when snippets of information are dropped into the text as one-liners, like leftovers from the author's notebooks. The result is a sense of fragmentation, compounded by the author's use of multiple narrative viewpoints - most of the novel is told from the perspectives of those who knew Nureyev at various points in his life. Their accounts unfold in alternating chunks of varying length as the baton of his story passes from one to another. While this succeeds in offering a persuasive composite picture of the dancer, it can make for a bitty, disorientating read.
The secondary figures - Victor, the gay drug dealer who befriended Nureyev in New York; Nureyev's shoemaker Tom Ashworth; Odile, his housekeeper; his family back home in Russia - take centre stage at times. They are impressive fictional re-creations, but the effect is to pull Nureyev himself in and out of focus.
Perhaps this is excusable and even appropriate. Nureyev, after all, is no more knowable to McCann, or to the reader, than he was to those who were part of the Nureyev circle. That is what gives biography and biographical fiction their creative dynamic: the quest to capture what cannot truly be captured. It echoes with Nureyev's own quest for personal and artistic perfection of expression through dance - a search, as McCann has Margot Fonteyn saying, "for that thing beyond dance, a desire for the human".
Nureyev came as close to attaining this as anyone. Yet in so doing, he exchanged love for adulation and found the solitude of the crowd. From the young boy dancing to entertain limbless Soviet troops, to the ballet star feted by presidents, to the ageing man allowed back into his homeland to visit a mother too confused to recognise him, McCann's Nureyev encapsulates the schism at the core of celebrity. A friend, seeing him approach, remarks: "Here comes loneliness applauding itself all the way down the street."
Martyn Bedford is a novelist