'Victor began to think about the current stars of the literary firmament. Was it possible that Martin Amis, Tom Stoppard and Julian Barnes were all government spies and trained assassins? The cream of literary London? Why hadn't he spotted it before? What chance did he, Victor Skynnard, have against that sort of opposition? No wonder my work is not well received, he thought bitterly.'
Welcome to minor player Victor's paranoid world and I couldn't possibly comment but it all foreshadows his wonderfully dramatic demise that really made me chuckle, though I might not have been meant to.
But welcome also to the frenetic world and imagination of Pauline Melville and her third novel Eating Air published by Telegram Books and with a ringing endorsement for her writing from Salman Rushdie blazoned across the cover.
I'm getting a feel for Telegram Books now, often quirky and unusual and something challenging in there to keep my reading wide awake and on its toes.
I read Another Gulmohar Tree by Aamer Hussein back when the days were long and sunny. Such a profoundly quiet book and at just over a hundred well-spaced pages one that whispered into my consciousness before I dashed off to summer literary festivals. When I eventually sat down to try and share my thoughts somehow I couldn't do it justice with any more words, so I decided to leave it as one that had been a purely personal pleasure to read.
Eating Air by Pauline Melville, at over four hundred pages, has required quite a different degree of commitment and stamina.
I had heard of The Shape Shifter thought not the author, but it had won the Guardian Fiction prize so clearly I wasn't paying attention, so as I strolled along the shelves looking for some post-Booker- post - 19th century rehab reading I plumped for Eating Air.
You'd think I'd be used to this by now but I still never cease to be amazed at the power of a book to transport me into a parallel and unknown reading universe, and if you'd told me that I'd really enjoy a book about a ballet dancer and some terrorists I doubt I would have believed you.
It's the 1970s and Surinam-born Ella de Vries dances with the Royal Ballet, gradually becoming involved in a terrorist network and falling in love with the enigmatic and peripatetic labourer and part-time terrorist Donny McLeod.
Donny is Mr Mysterious, detached, unpredictable and Bohemian, a free spirit who somehow convinces those around him to accept his foibles and just take or leave him...mostly leave him, because he just ups and goes on the slightest whim.
These are the days of the Baader-Meinhof and the Brigate Rosse whilst in England the IRA have stepped up their operations.
There's a thirty year narrative gap before the story melds into the terrorism of the moment and a sort of collision of the old and the new, so expect to move quickly from gestetner machines being used to duplicate propaganda leaflets and marzipan-flavoured gelignite to see it all through, to latter-day semtex. In the interim Ella has fled into exile in Brazil and significantly transformed from dancing Swan Lake at Covent Garden to making the Firebird her speciality. On her return to England old contacts make themselves known as the book builds towards it's final fairly shocking denouement.
There is much that is unusual about Eating Air.
Ella for a start is not your usual over-precious ballet dancer, here is insouciance defined. It's all in a day's work and there is little of the fawning over the state of her feet or her diet that you might expect. Ella's late home to cooking dinner because she's had an evening performance, her feet bleed, so they go in a bowl of water and she gets on with it, and thinks nothing of running bare foot over the Scottish highlands.
Just about every character has a quirky and memorable out of the ordinary twist to them.
Take Ella's one-time flat mate, the American Hetty Moran, an inveterate liar who regularly 'dips her ladle into a soup of false ancestry', you never quite know what Hetty will do next but it is invariably for her own ends and destructive of others.
Felix Caspers the airline pilot with a penchant for...no you'll have to find that out.
Vera Scobie, the actress with a human rights agenda so redolent of...well, I'm sure you can hazard a guess.
Pauline Melville also has many moments of descriptive perfection.
'The dinner party had reached the stage, during dessert when it generated a steady warmth like a banked down fire.'
When Ella first meets and falls in love with Danny, the most unlikely of partners for her...
'She felt that her bloodstream had been irreversibly altered and started to flow in the opposite direction.'
But I'll be honest, there were moments when I also quite thought the nuts of bolts had rattled loose and the wheels of the plot were going to fall off completely, moments when my disbelief had to be firmly suspended and my incredulity boxed up, but perhaps I rush to judgment too quickly on matters of credibility.
Out it comes and we pronounce a book flawed in some way, but it's fiction I'm reading after all.
Simon Mawer crystallised it in his recent Guardian interview,
'I'm a novelist. I don't want to tell the truth. I want to manipulate things as I choose. I want to lie.'
That said I wonder whether an author does sometimes paint themselves into a plot corner and the only way out is to think 'well...you know what, we're going to walk away from this unscathed' because actually he needs to die and she needs to live or we have no more book.
Ella frequently survives to live another day when you quite think she shouldn't.
But the more I thought about this, and fiction generally, I started to examine whether this was about me exercising an element of control and wanting a book to go one way, when an author clearly wanted it to go somewhere else and took it there. We are very quick to say a plot device is implausible, even get a bit cross about it, but actually isn't a great deal of life implausible and unlikely too?
It was only on turning the final page of Eating Air and reading an acknowledgement to Euripides and the reworking of themes from The Bacchae that I suddenly felt a bit of a klutz. I spotted a few episodes but there is doubtless a whole sub-text to this book that my mythology lacunae have unwittingly passed over, those with this knowledge may read this book quite differently.
That said, I can focus on the foxgloves because I'm still uncertain about foxgloves growing in profusion in the early autumn (long gone here in Devon) but that's just pernickety old me, I can't deny that I have thoroughly enjoyed this book on many levels and clearly missed several more and I'd be very interested to know what anyone else thinks about this one if they decide to read it.