Second-novel syndrome

One Day

Ardashir Vakil <em>Hamish Hamilton, 292pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 024114132X

One Day begins in bed. Priya Patnaik is masturbating, with pleasure, while her husband Ben Tennyson, lying beside her, scours his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, for insights into what's gone wrong with his game. The inner meaning of this opening scene isn't hard to read; the rest of the book, which takes place in just one day in the life of this couple, is the painful quest on the part of both husband and wife to understand how they have reached this point of mutual unhappiness and mistrust.

Marriage as teamwork; marriage as conquest; marriage as fulfilment; marriage as self-discovery: Ardashir Vakil explores these ideas with a good deal of subtlety and intelligence. While Priya "reads" the world through her body, Ben searches for coherence in outward signs. They are, like so many couples, locked into a conversation that each conducts in a different language.

Their cultural and personal differences - English, public-school-educated, cautious Ben; spontaneous, ambitious, Indian Priya - are poured into the rift, used by each in turn to vilify and condemn the other. The overt wound, it turns out somewhat unsurprisingly, is sexual infidelity. Vakil explores unflinchingly the difficulty of moving on from this kind of attack on trust. But ultimately the real (and paradoxical) enemy of happiness is shown to be the challenge of intimacy itself.

Praise for Ardashir Vakil's first novel, Beach Boy, was fulsome. Salman Rushdie and John Updike, no less, saluted its skilful, sensuous portrayal of growing up in India, its delicate balancing of the child's with the adult's perception of events. It won a deserved Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. His second novel, however, is less sure-footed. The ideas are interesting and important, but their embodiment in these particular characters and events is never entirely convincing.

Set in London somewhere north of Islington, the novel relies too much on our familiarity with the urban, middle-class world of coffee shops, children's parties, the search for the right kind of chillis, and the juggling of childcare and career (Ben is a secondary schoolteacher, Priya a journalist at the BBC). Ben and Priya, and their various friends and relations, never quite escape the feeling of being ciphers, never quite emerge as full-blown literary creations. Nor does it help that the precedents for this kind of life-in-the-day-of novel are Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses and Seize the Day. Nor that the closing paragraph is alarmingly reminiscent of the end of James Joyce's short story "The Dead".

To me, One Day seems a book that needed more time to come to fruition. Vakil's next book, I'm sure, will be truer to form, but this one, like so many second novels, is far less impressive than his last. Perhaps all second novels should come with a health warning: "Danger - this book may seriously damage your estimation of its author."

Rebecca Abrams is working on a novel about Disraeli

This article first appeared in the 03 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Terrorism: the price we pay for poverty