The Counterlife by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, £10.95).
Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley (Macmillan, £9.95).
Train to Doringbult by Marguerite Poland (Bodley Head, £9.95).
Philip Roth's The Counterlife is several alternative stories about the same Jewish American Zuckerman brothers, Henry and Nathan.
Henry, a dentist, lusts after his receptionist but is impotent because of pills that he has to take for his heart condition. He therefore decides to have a heart by-pass operation so that he can dispense with the pills.
During this he dies, and at his funeral his widow makes a speech expressing her pride that Henry chose to risk his life for the ideal of a full and perfect marriage. Nathan, a writer, chronicles the story in his notebooks.
In the next scenario, we start with the same situation but this time Henry survives the operation, becomes a passionately dedicated Jew and goes to live in Israel where Nathan visits him. Later, the story is told with the brothers' roles completely reversed so that Nathan has the heart operation while Henry writes his story.
It is all very smoothly written, rather like a game played with mirrors, but by the half-way mark one has grown confused with all the kaleidoscopic movement and the point of the exercise eludes me.
In Famous Last Words, H.S. Mauberley, a famous American writer and a dedicated Fascist, is fleeing from the advancing Allied armies in the spring of 1945, carrying his notebooks which briefly record his life story. By chance he finds himself near a hotel on the Italian-Austrian border where he used to stay in happier days, and he camps in the huge, empty building
He works day and night to write on the walls of several rooms his expanded memoirs. Of his meeting with Wallis Simpson in Shanghai in 1924 and his lover for her, of his presence on the yacht in 1936 where King Edward VIII allows the world press to see his infatuation, of the Abdiction and the Windsor's marriage, and of his time with them in Madrid and Portugal after the fall of France.
Mauberley had become involved in a Fascist group, headed by Ribbentrop, which plotted to kidnap the couple and set them up as puppet monarchs of a Germany ruling over all of conquered Europe. The Duke, by then Governor of the Bahamas, was unaware of this and in what is depicted as a confused mental state depended entirely on the Duchess who waited for the call from Ribbentrop which would put them centre stage again, but the plot was foiled. When Mauberley has finishec writing his saga on the walls he it run to earth, in a room when there happens to be no writing, by a Nazi Intelligence Office' who kills him and burns his notebooks unaware that the tale is already set down for posterity.
The story moves at a brisk pace and makes compelling reading but I found the mixture of fact and fiction somewhat tiresome, especially the conversations invented between historical characters.
Train to Doringbult tells of Jan and Elsa de Villiers who live with their little girl on a farm in South Africa. Both have grown up there and have known since childhood the couple who work for them Petrus, who is head man on the farm, and Chrissie who cooks.
They trust them and are deeply fond of them, but Jan's brother, Adrian, who is partowner of the farm although he works as a lawyer, respresents the extreme white view which regards all blacks as thieves and liars.
In the events that unfold here we see some of the many tragic results of the tensions in this unhappy land. Alongside that story is the domestic one, of Jan and Elsa's marriage and of the strains that it survives.
Marguerite Poland has written successful children's books but this is her first adult novel. She writes well and I look forward to her next.