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Truth and Consequence

Alison Lurie

Chatto, pp. 232, £

Fifty-two-year-old Alan Mackenzie has been in severe and unrelenting pain for 16 months, having slipped a disc during a game of volleyball. No one has been able to alleviate his condition, not ‘four physical therapists, three ortho-paedic surgeons, two neurologists and an acupuncturist in a pear tree’. He no longer expects to get better, and lives amid a welter of medication and cumbersome aids; his wife Jane has become effectively his attendant, suppressing her guilty resentment. At this point, sufferers from acute back pain may wish to stop reading. Actually, they would do well to continue, with relish, for we are in an Alison Lurie novel, where deft irony will illuminate the most apparently dire situation.

Alan, an architectural historian, is currently a faculty fellow of the Center for Humanities at Corinth university, of which Jane is the administrative director. Corinth is of course an old stamping ground of Lurie’s; we first knew it in The War between the Tates, in the 1970s, and indeed characters from then make passing appearances here. But this is the fall of 2001; campus concerns have moved on. That said, this is not a campus novel; it is a brief private skirmish, a tale of two couples, but cunningly embedded. The Center is marvellously evoked: its implacable mores, its shifting cast of temporary fellows, the interfering widow of its benefactor. This is archetypal academia, but with the added twist of one distinctly unacademic figure.

Delia Delaney is famous and beautiful, the author of highly regarded fantasy tales, an American Angela Carter. She erupts into the Center, the star fellow of the year, and soon has everyone beguiled by her southern charm, her golden locks, her floaty dresses. She suffers from crippling migraines; her amiable, handsome husband Henry serves as her general factotum.

Alison Lurie has always been extraordinarily skilful at whipping from one viewpoint to another. One thinks of Only Children, with its compelling kaleidoscopic narrative. In Truth and Consequences just Jane and Alan alternate, but with always that ironic authorial tone behind their version of what is going on. This makes for a dismayingly truthful account of the effect on a marriage of debilitating illness; both have lost sight of the people they once were and the relationship they once had. It needs only the intrusion of external factors, in the form, of course, of Delia and her husband, to precipitate a crisis.

Some 30 pages or so before the end of this brief novel I was wondering how on earth Lurie was going to tie things up, and had a few ideas, none of which turned out to be right. The outcome always hangs perilously in the balance, along with a certain teasing ambiguity about personalities. Delia is irresistible and seductive, but it becomes evident that she is sexually squeamish (which suits Alan well enough, who has his own problems in that department); furthermore, cracks appear in the fa