Eating Air

Victor Skynnard, a curmudgeonly playwright, nurses a daydream that his friend Vera Scobie will die and leave him her fortune. But Vera, a posturing "campaigning actress", has bigger problems: 30 years ago, her son Mark became involved with Italy's Red Brigade. When he was caught by Special Branch infiltrators, Vera used her connections to secure his release, leaving Hector to be jailed for Mark's crime.

Now, with Hector cocooned in family life in Kent, a ghost from his youth returns in the form of Ella de Vries, a ballet dancer from Suriname. Just as the truth of Ella's past begins to unfurl, Mark also returns to England, involved in a new kind of terrorism.

Few writers could weave a dense plot so plausibly, but Pauline Melville's taut writing makes the denouement shocking and original. Leavening the usual touch-points of political extremism and liberal hypocrisy with sharp observations about the Dutch colonial legacy, Melville has written one of the few novels about terrorism in the 2000s that may transcend their time.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London