22 JANUARY 1972, Page 13

on a first novel

boring member of the working classes called Albert, whom she worships. When he dies, she has insufficient emotional or intellectual resources to cope with life without him — the actual circumstances of his death remain a slightly tiresome unresolved mystery — but she has his £1,000 life insurance. She reckons that if she draws £1 a week she will have enough to see her through to an old age pension, and takes up residence in the churchyard where Albert is buried, talking to him constantly.

She is taken into voluntary care in a mental hospital — Mr Cook's descriptions of life in a mental hospital are very moving, if perhaps a little rose-tinted — she walks out after a disagreement with one of the patients and sets out on a pilgrimage to Fleetwood, where she and Albert spent their honeymoon together. The first unpleasant taste in the book is when Mr Cook describes her previous sexlife with Albert — they invariably practised coitus interruptus. This is completely justified, quite interesting, and is important to the plot, but there is something profoundly distasteful about the way Mr Cook describes their love-making. Perhaps it is because he, too, finds the idea distasteful, despite his determined efforts to make it sound attractive. I had the same complaint to make about the heterosexual descriptions in Simon Raven's last book. Whereas the homosexual descriptions in the second part of Mr Cook's novel are written with vitality and feeling, the heterosexual descriptions are merely an embarrassment.

But worse is to come. On the way to Fleetwood, Mary is raped by a fifteen-yearold youth while his friends stand around masturbating. The rape is essential to the story, but not the masturbation, and the description of the scene is so violently unpleasant that many readers will wish to read no further. This is a shame, because there is so much in the book which is truly excellent, and it is all thrown away, at any rate so far as many readers will be concerned, by three pages of self-indulgence.

After being raped, Mary is convinced that she is going to have a baby, and Albert no longer speaks to her in her poor, muddled brain. The first part ends with Mary returning to London after an unsuccessful attempt to drown herself. Here she meets (in the third part) Paul, the hero of the second part. Paul is another shy, lonely figure, who has been picked up by a rich university lecturer in a train when on the way home from his mother's funeral in Banbury. The pick-up and seduction are described with enormous skill, and Mr Cook takes infinite trouble to describe the stages by which Paul comes to live in the flat in Onslow Square as Richard's kept man. Paul's mother had plainly been a most forceful character, and the stages by which Richard comes to usurp her place are beautifully hinted, without any undue emphasis or underlining.

The final scene, when Mary takes his mother's place, is cruder and more derivative — one suspects that Mr Cook has been heavily influenced by an admiration for Lord Edward Albee — but one accepts it, nevertheless, as a development from what has gone before.

The death of Richard is another tour de force, before the novel wanders off into a long and unnecessary account of Paul's relationship with a hotel porter, the only point of which is to describe his loneliness. He has been left £120,000 by Richard, and when he takes the exhausted and starving Mary into his Onslow Square flat, the emotional relief and flood of generous sentiment which Mr Cook has managed to excite by now is worthy of any Victorian novel. Perhaps he would be ashamed to stir such feelings if he had not treated us to violent descriptions of rape and buggery beforehand. I can only say that his sensitivity is misguided. So very few people nowadays possess the technical skill to bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye that they have nothing to fear from jealous hacks of novel reviewers who condemn them for sentimentality.

The very end returns to Mr Cook's tough, unpleasant style, with a phantom pregnancy and Paul suckling at Mary's forty-eight-year-old nipples. Never mind. I hope that after this book, he will have got Edward Albee out of his system and will be able to recognise where his own very considerable talents lie. The book, as I have said, is distinctly promising.