Paperback reader

Something like a house

Sid Smith <em>Picador, 227pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 0330480871

Sid Smith was working as a little-known sub-editor on the Times when this, his debut novel, won the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award. Jim Fraser, a British deserter from the Korean war, is captured by the Chinese and labelled a "round-eye" or "long-nose". Yet in time, he becomes integrated into Chinese village life, where he lives for 35 years, a forgotten man.

Smith claims never to have visited China, but his insights and research are impressive. He covers subjects as diverse as the strains of interracial relationships, germ warfare and the cultural revolution, but the novel is at its best when concentrating on village life: Fraser's meeting with his first friend, a buffalo; the painstaking construction of his house; and the intricacies and rituals associated with a Miao funeral ceremony. The clarity of the prose, punctuated by moments of inspiration - "her pale mad face as round as a pan of fat" - is balanced by the aphoristic language of the Chinese, creating a sense of two worlds, the microcosm inhabited by Fraser and the wider world he represents. As a vision of China, the novel is harrowing. As an example of innovative contemporary fiction, it is without fault.