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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

The Guardian
Saturday July 20, 2002

Pixies and fruitcakes

lan Sansom is dizzied by Jeffrey Moore's ambitious first novel, Red-Rose Chain

Red-Rose Chain
by Jeffrey Moore 400pp, Weidenfeld, £12.99

Jeffrey Moore's first novel has a pixie-led plot, fruitcakey characters, and a prose that can only be described as dizzying. It gets off to a capricious start, with Jeremy Davenant's Uncle Gerard blindfolding the young Jeremy and inviting him to pick a book from his library. "Listen to the voices inside you," instructs Gerard-who is himself at the time wearing an African mask. Jeremy obliges, and is then instructed to tear a page from the book. This becomes Jeremy's "magic leaf", the page that will determine his destiny.

The chosen book turns out to be a rather exotic encyclopaedia, and the ripped page contains entries beginning with "Sha". Jeremy's destiny is therefore to be in some way determined by the influence of the Zulu chieftain Shaka, the Indian erotic drama of Shakuntala, a Ukrainian coal-mining town called Shakhtyorsk, and good old Shakespeare.

What follows is part romance, part murder-mystery, and part satire-basically, a wandering sequence of events featuring a grown-up Jeremy as a lecturer at a university in Montreal, supported by a cast of richly eccentric characters with names such as Ralph Stilton and Drew Bludd (of the band High Mass of the Funky Ass). The increasingly flaky Uncle Gerard makes a number of fleeting appearances.

Jeremy fails in love with-or believes he is destined to fall in love with-a mysterious woman, a Czech-Indian-Irish-Canadian, with hairy armpits, and "a night-black thunder- cloud that hung over her eyes". The woman is called Milena and is a kind of urban post- feminist 21st-century multi-cultural Dark Lady of the Sonnets. She has secrets.

There's hardly any breathing space in the book at all, it's so full of quirks and quick-turns, wit and erudition. Entertaining and exhausting, it's reminiscent of the early John Irving. When Jeremy passes by a tramp on the street, for example, even the tramp can't let him go without claiming to be a "Prophet from Pluto and a follower of Kulla, the Sumerian god of bricks".

Milena describes Jeremy as "a die-hard delusionist, a hopeless fantasist"-and there are many other similarities, one suspects, between the author and his hapless hero.

Ian Sansom is the author of The Truth About Babies (Granta)