A conspiracy of the heart
473pp. Doubleday. £12.99.
y day a demonstrator of sanitary napkins in a London department store, by night Miranda Brown finds emotional escape in the company of endless romances. One day she stumbles on a strange volume concealed in open view on the shelf: a dated-looking monograph called A Conspiracy of the Heart by Paul Pennyfeather. Seen reading it on the Tube next day, Miranda becomes the quarry in a ruthless womanhunt by the security services, who thought they had destroyed all available copies of a book with potential to undermine society. The secret weapon they bring to bear is an alpha-male romantic lead, "Ferdinand", his jaw as chiselled, his eyes as fathomless as his manner is calm and strong. He, it is reasoned, will be able to woo Miranda from Pennyfeather's heresy before she has a chance fully to embrace it (and, of course, he can always kill her, if all else fails). A plot whose baroque complexity is matched only by the joyous improbability of just about every twist takes the lovers to Venice, Love's capital, on the Orient Express.
They are tracked there by a grotesque assortment of spooks as concern grows that Ferdinand may be "turned". Miranda's busty best friend, Mercy, is in hot pursuit, and there are parts as well for sad Tony, the anoraked computer-hacker from the bedsit next door, who has woven Miranda into the interconnected mesh of conspiracy theories that is his existence, and for another of Miranda's unsought admirers, Barry from Dispatches, whose most remarkable trait is the unselfconscious way he scratches himself during conversations. There is even a cameo for the aged Pennyfeather himself, the novel's doddery Prospero, an obsessive mumbler of rock-lyrics and player of air guitar.
So there it is: mildly sexy, a bit scatological, some striking characters, any amount of absurdity and an extravagant but beautifully structured plot - everything is in place for a highly entertaining yet intelligent comic novel. Feminists could hardly fault Miranda or Mercy's feistiness - no doormats even in the presence of the partners of their dreams - though it may be felt that Marius Brill overestimates the intrinsic humour of women's bodily functions. The inset passages from Pennyfeather's book are by no means as forbidding as they might appear from the crabbed typeface in which they are set. Though on occasion pastiching the antique scholarly style, they for the most part read much more breezily, and are cheerfully anachronistic in both allusions and turns of phrase. This pragmatism is admirable: postmodernism can take "playfulness" much too seriously, but Brill's sense of fun is evident on every page. Yet with all its many virtues, this novel suffers from a chronic lack of comic focus.
Puns, gags, witty observations, surreal flights, there is a laugh of some sort in every line - though not necessarily one that advances us any further towards where we should be going. A quip for Brill is the Cleopatra for which he will give up the world and consider it well lost. Nor, in the sheer quantity of jokes he unleashes, is he really vigilant about their quality: his thoughts on the way the supply of London cabs dries up when it rains can, for instance, only be described as hackneyed. We glimpse the brilliance that might have been in the final fifty pages or so where Brill seems suddenly to step on the narrative gas, and all rushes headlong towards a gloriously silly conclusion. But for far too much of the journey we have been inching along, as though caught in a motorway traffic jam - and, worse, stuck behind a coachload of mugging, mooning, obscenity-mouthing adolescent boys.