New Fiction


Last updated at 17:08 05 October 2007

Colleen McCullough

Antony & Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (HarperCollins, £17.99)
Colleen McCullough's title is misleading: this is, in fact, A Tale Of Two Triumvirs. Middle-aged Mark Antony is a 'force of nature', famed for his gluttony and the size of his manhood; Octavian is a sickly youth Between them they rule much of the manhood; Octavian is a sickly youth of 18. Between them they rule much of the Roman Empire. But theirs is an uneasy accord.

And while Octavian has vowed never to challenge the older man in combat, Antony's position is far from secure. Cleopatra, cold-blooded Queen of the East, has her snares in place for the lusty, luckless warrior.

At more than 700 pages, this is an epic in size as well as scope, and McCullough's characters can seem dwarfed by their backdrop.

Readers expecting a leading couple along Shakespearean lines will be disappointed: the Cleopatra of this novel is hardly an exotic of 'infinite variety'. This is a political drama, not a romance, and it is the increasingly canny Octavian who emerges as its hero. Indeed, the author slyly suggests, the leaders of the ancient world could rival our own when it came to spin. Slow to start, this develops into an irresistible read.

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Exit Ghost

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Exit Ghost marks the final appearance of Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's celebrated alter ego. And appropriately, given Zuckerman's physical and mental decline, it is more of a fade-out finale.

Since retreating to a mountain lodge 11 years ago, Zuckerman has lived alone with his words. Incontinent, he has learned to accommodate his condition; however, news of a potential cure sees him returning reluctantly to the city.

Post-9/11 New York is, for Zuckerman, an alien world, but there are familiar faces such as Amy Bellette, the partner of Zuckerman's mentor, E.I. Lonoff, who is fast succumbing to cancer.

And there are familiar emotions, too. When Zuckerman enters impulsively into a houseswop, he meets Jamie Logan, a married woman with whom he becomes instantly obsessed.

As always with Roth, there are regular intervals of brilliance and occasional fine needles of wit. But as Zuckerman's memory becomes increasingly impaired, so Exit Ghost loses both momentum and focus. Meanwhile, the dramatic dialogue that Zuckerman, as a result of his infatuation, starts to write seems almost lazy from a writer of Roth's calibre.

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Old Men In Love

Old Men In Love by Alasdair Gray (Bloomsbury, £20)

Gray's 19th book defies succinct description and, typically, literary convention. Subtitled John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers, it opens with a teasing introduction from Tunnock's next of kin, Lady Jaegar. .

from Tunnock's next of kin, Lady Sara Sims-Jaegar.

Tunnock, we learn, was a retired Glaswegian teacher who died after suffering a suspicious fall. He left behind him an eccentrically furnished house and a motley collection of papers, which Sims-Jaegar passes on to 'local writer' Alasdair Gray. What follows are the staunchly socialist Tunnock's writings, edited, 'decorated' and divertingly annotated by Gray.

The deceased, it seems, had been composing a vast work of historical fiction, set variously in ancient Athens (where readers are treated to Socrates repairing a sandal), Medician Florence and Victorian Britain.

As Tunnock's diaries suggest, however, the creative process proves anything but painless, and the author was prone to distraction — especially in the form of seedy young women.

In the words of 'Sidney Workman' — a 'reviewer' whose scathing comments constitute this book's critic-defying epilogue — Old Men In Love is a 'rag-bag'. It is also audacious, indulgent and, at times, amusing.

Unlikely to win Gray new readers, it will nevertheless satisfy his loyal fans.

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