Worlds apart

<strong>Sputnik Caledonia</strong>

Andrew Crumey <em>Picador, 552pp, £7.99</em>

Andrew Crumey is an unusual kind of writer. Despite his robust intellectual concerns, his style is so simple that it can seem naive. Politics, philosophy, social history and science are somehow absorbed into his novels without ever complicating his prose or drawing attention from his ingenious plots.

His new novel divides into three, startlingly different parts. The first, written as a nostalgic coming-of-age story, begins in 1970s Scotland, where ten-year-old Robbie Coyle dreams of becoming an astronaut. Or rather, a cosmonaut, as he'd "feel safer on a Russian mission" – his father, a committed socialist, has indoctrinated him against the capitalist west.

Part two takes place in an alternative communist Britain that has featured in two of Crumey's previous novels. Robbie is now a recruit at the Installation, a sinister research station dedicated to the space race. Part three takes us back to the realist landscape of the first section, but the atmosphere has soured. Robbie's parents are now older and unhappier, and Robbie himself is nowhere to be seen.

The balance between these contrasting worlds is handled deftly. A couple of minor flaws – the odd inconsistency in Robbie’s character, for example – scarcely matter when there is so much else to admire.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad