21 July 2002
Love's labour's literary
Max Davidson reviews Red-Rose Chain by Jeffrey Moore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99, 392 pp
Set mainly in Montreal, where the author lives, Red-Rose Chain is a sparkling first novel by a young writer of whom more will surely be heard. It is a clever book, dense with literary allusions, but also a heart-warming one, with a thoroughly likeable hero, as romantic as he is accident-prone.
Since childhood, as a result of a silly party game, Jeremy Davenant has been convinced that the story of his life is encrypted on a page plucked at random from an encyclopedia. Shaka, a Zulu tyrant, is going to feature. So is Shakespeare. So is Shakhtyorsk, a remote mining town in the Ukraine. And so is Shakuntala, a princess in Hindu mythology. As the narrative develops, those wildly disparate ingredients begin to coalesce.
Forging academic credentials from an obscure South African university - hence the Zulu connection - Jeremy gets a teaching job in Canada, where he lectures on the disputed plays of Shakespeare. When he falls in love with the dusky Milena, who promptly elopes, bound for the Ukraine, he sets off in pursuit. In the manner of the late Shakespearean romances, with their fantastical happy endings, the novel ends in York, where Jeremy spent his childhood.
The extravagance of the plot is matched by the exuberance of the writing. Moore has a pleasantly expansive, conversational style: you can almost hear him regaling his readers with anecdotes. Here he is at an academic party: "In the crowded kitchen, I was attacked by Daphne De Witt, the Dutch giantess, who released the arm of some wizened emeritus and kissed me drunkenly, leaving specks of mushroom vol-au-vent on my face." If you are not chuckling by the time you get to the vol-au-vent, you must be very hard to please.
Puppyish good humour is allied to tenderness in characterisation. The stop-go romance between Jeremy and Milena, intellectually well-endowed but sexually complete novices, is charted with skill and humour. The character of "Uncle" Gerard, a disreputable father figure who gives Jeremy cynical but ultimately sound advice, is also well executed.
Add some exotic minor characters, from vindictive professors to low-life types living in grungy apartments, and some clever set-pieces - none better than the haircut-from-hell preparatory to a romantic dinner - and you have a very attractive package indeed: literate, literary fiction, but without a hint of academic mustiness.
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