Mr Wakefield's Crusade by Bernice Rubens (Hamish Hamilton, £8.95).
BERNICE Rubens is at her most powerful when dealing with loneliness and isolation — and the desperate and often pathetic means by which those shunned by society seek acceptance and compassion.
The "crusade" referred to in the title of her latest novel is a crusade for a particular kind of recognition — namely revenge, albeit vicarious. Luke Wakefield is a man of "private means" who reads the Times' death columns and lives alone in a stylish penthouse overlooking Regent's Park — alone because his wife Connie has left him for another woman and a new life in Australia, accentuating his own sense of failure and impotence. On one of the routine trips which fill his empty hours and blot out "Connie-thoughts" (which usually revolve around how to pay her back), Luke falls upon a mystery — literally falls since the man in front of him in a post office queue drops dead leaving an unopened letter on the counter.
The contents of the letter give Luke a purpose, enabling him to overcome the latest blow when Connie announces that she and her lover are to have a baby, by artificial means. Luke embarks on his "crusade" to find the dead man's wife •— Marion Firbank — who he believes is also dead, the victim of her husband as much as Luke is the victim of Connie.
Since one element in this compelling novel is .the unravelling of a mystery, 1 will disclose no more of the plot save to say that the final document owes a little to Shakespeare and something to Brian de Palma's cinematic vision in Dressed to Kill.
In more general terms, Ms Rubens is breaking new ground with this • novel. Unlike the unusual heroines of earlier
works -Bronwen Pugh in I Sent a Letter to My Love, and Jean Hawkins in A Five Year Sentence — Luke Wakefield lives in luxury.
But where Bronwen and Jean were heroines, loveable, vulnerable and even noble in their foolishness, Luke Wakefield is at times merely irritating in his obsessions and pretent ions.
Bernice Rubens has a gift for taking the reader inside her characters, explaining obsessions which border on madness. In so doing she examines with sympathy the labyrinth of tangled emotions which surround and result in isolation, particularly in,I Sent a Letter to My Love.
In Mr Wakefield's Crusade, however, that exploration is at times shallow, at others trivial, but always lacking in poignancy. The story is essentially a fairy tale, which enwraps the reader, but ultimately leaves him with nothing. Peter Stanford