Kerosina, 1987, £12.50
reviewed in Fiction Magazine, July-August 1987
Keith Roberts is one of the finest writers of science fiction in this country. His work is informed by a deep, sensual awareness of landscape, especially the English landscape of Corfe Castle and the Downs. There is a disturbing fascination with the effects of violence, and commonly things are segmented, broken apart; even down to the novel itself, for his best work – Pavane (included by Anthony Burgess among his 99 Books), The Chalk Giants and Kiteworld – consist of inter-related stories which do not tell one cohesive tale but build up instead into a mosaic of the world of his imagining. History is cyclic, endlessly repeating itself down the ages, touched by deep-buried myths which tie time and countryside together. And through it all his novels and stories are haunted by the same sexy young girl who recurs in an endless variety of guises in everything he writes.
All of which is an essential precursor to the immense achievement of his latest novel, Graínne. As J.G. Ballard did in Empire of the Sun, Roberts has plundered elements of his own life story for a mainstream novel which vividly displays all the imaginative underpinnings of his science fiction. It would, of course, be wrong to read too much autobiography into the novel; nevertheless, certain episodes and situations are resonant with truth, and ring clearly through the entire body of his work.
It takes the form of a dialogue between an unnamed patient and figures who are presumed to be doctors or psychologists, though the ending throws this, as so much else, into doubt. Interspersed with the dialogue are the reminiscences of the patient, always in the third person, in which he is referred to as Alistair Bevan, a pseudonym Roberts used occasionally at the start of his career. Bevan is a commercial artist and sometime novelist, and imaginative as opposed to actual truth is implicit throughout the novel; while the dialogue allows him to provide an extra oblique commentary upon the memories.
We follow Bevan from school to art school by way of his father's cinema projection booth and on eventually to commercial success in advertising. (Art school, cinema projection and advertising provide frequent symbols in his work, most notably in The Inner Wheel whose hero, Roley, is remembered in one of the characters in this book.) Parallel to this, though more significant, we follow him from early sexual encounters to his meeting with Graínne, a clear echo of the multi-girl who inhabits his other books. Graínne dominates his life. They become lovers briefly, tour the Downs, visit Corfe, and she introduces him to the Celtic myths which provide a sort of tenebrous framework for the fiction. Then she leaves him. Typically, during the empty years alone Bevan achieves a sterile success, until Graínne reappears, now a media superstar, to catapult him into astonished advertising high-flying. But behind this is something else, a spiritual success, dimle seen, perhaps not grasped, perhaps not really graspable, which transforms a tale of inescapable fate at the end into the possibility of hope.
Throughout his career, Roberts's work has been notable for the quality of his writing, though never has it attained quite the power displayed here. It is a roman-à-clef that provides a commentary on his other fictions, rich in real and literary influences, with overt and implied nods in the direction of a host of other writers, from John Betjeman to Angus Wilson. It is as fine a book as Roberts has ever written, and probably as fine a book as we will see this year.