7 JULY 2007, Page 29

A beastly upbringing

Harriet Waugh MINOTAUR IN LOVE by Fraser Harrison Flambard Press, £8.99, pp. 256, ISBN 9781873226896 © £7.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Minotaur in Love is Fraser Harrison's second novel. His first, High on the Hog, published in 1991, set around a family Christmas in the country, was funny and moving. Minotaur in Love is altogether odder. Written in epistolary form, the Minotaur of the title is Bruno, a publisher, who tries to explain his strangeness to a female former colleague.

He does this in a journal, starting with his birth shortly after the accidental death of his five-year-old sister. He has the distinct feeling that his father dislikes him, and he attributes this to his father's unassuageable grief. Their estrangement becomes obvious when the ten-year-old Bruno, on his brandnew birthday bicycle, follows his father on the latter's weekly pilgrimage to his daughter's grave. Jangling his bell, he speeds up to where his father stands with bowed head at the grave. The only words Bruno remembers him saying are, 'Don't ever come here again. You have no place here. You are not wanted.' There is no recovery from this. As Bruno explains: How can a man who buys generous presents be accused of hatred, I can hear you ask. Well, I dare say it was my mother who actually orchestrated my birthday surprise, but that's not the point. What is hard to grasp if you haven't experienced it at first hand is that hatred and duty are not incompatible.

His mother is not unkind and Bruno feels she probably loves him, but she is as eccentric as her husband. As a couple, they have no friends and sneer ironically at life in general.

Bruno describes himself as an adolescent: I had always been a solid child, and now I began to fulfil what turned out to be my laterally gigantic though vertically stunted potential. During this period of transformation I gained no more than a few inches in height, leaving me as an adult to stand in my stockinged feet at five foot five inches. In breadth, however, I expanded enormously: my limbs thickened to great columns, while my chest and shoulders acquired Herculean proportions. My head, always large, swelled and rounded, and stood on the thick plinth of my neck like an enormous cannonball. To proceed from base to apex, I became large-footed, heroicallycalved, mightily-thighed, barrel-chested, hugely-thewed, bull-necked and beetle-browed. I also grew a pelt of thick, black, curly hair.

And so the Minotaur was born.

He becomes an obsessive bookbuyer, and books slowly form a physical labyrinth, in addition to the mental one which encloses him He becomes a commissioning editor in a publishing house, working late into the night after his colleagues have left. He is not friendless, but his emotional life is arid and he starts resorting to prostitutes until he meets tall, Junoesque, Suzette. On that meeting depends the rest of the novel.

Minotaur in Love is the description of a journey into one man's psyche. At first I thought Bruno's self-image was an inner projection caused by his strange childhood rather than the outer semblance of the man. But Bruno is maimed both ways, and his behaviour is an indication of how successfully he is able to deal with life. Suzette represents his chance to leave the labyrinth. At the end it is not clear whether Bruno has broken out, although he thinks differently.

Fraser Harrison is an elegant writer who is a pleasure to read and this novel is engrossing and quirky both in its sad humour and the questions that Bruno poses but fails to answer. My only cavil is with the method used to tell the tale. The fact that Bruno addresses such an intimate confession to someone as peripheral to his life as a work colleague may be an authorial device to show how far he still has to go at the story's end, but I would have enjoyed it more if he had spoken directly to the reader.