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Press: The Daily Telegraph

Bound together by displacement
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 26/02/2006

We're becoming used to enormous novels that survey families stretched out across centuries and the ruins of empires. The Drift Latitudes covers lots of the globe, and moves from now back to 1918. It contains a German inventor who stares at the sea from Merseyside and shudders to recall the time he spent in U-boats; his daughter, Jade, who wants to find out why he left his family; her half-sister, Rachel, who has followed her own husband to Africa and found herself raising children in a country riven with civil war; Jade's husband, a war photographer; and a man called Thursday, who may as well have no name, who fell to his death on a construction site in London.

The extraordinary thing about this example of the genre is that it's so short. Still, for 200 pages, it's oddly full of random information. There are detailed paragraphs on typewriters, architecture and koi carp. And there are characters about whom we suddenly start caring, however tenuous their links to the fragmented narrative, before they drift off again.

The author could aptly say that this all serves his purpose. His travellers settle in strange lands to make unpredictable attachments, to things and sounds as much as to people. As one character puts it, "we are bound together by the fact of our displacement". This comes in long-distance correspondence from Rachel to Jade, and serves to remind us that, although they share the same father, the two have never met.

Jamal Mahjoub deploys his research and ingenuity to find metaphors appropriate to this situation. He writes well about jazz, cities, and about the fusions that happen when musicians from all over the world arrive in the same place. But he struggles to make the connection work over an extended metaphor: "The great cities, like jazz, she thought, were composed of thousands of discordant notes that come together at times to create harmony." This sounds more like bebop.

The constant effort to put a planet into his imagery results in some overwriting. "The pools of rainwater merged across the broken, muddy ground forming a mappa mundi - the little inlets expanding, connecting into oceans, dissecting the continents of a world. The foundations here dug down into the Cretaceous bedrock, 140 million years old." (A note on the author tells us that he trained as a geologist.)

Mahjoub is much better when he gives himself space to explore a single character, and lets us tease out the echoes. He does not need to spell out the connections between the scenes of jazz-loving immigrants who fetch up in 1950s Liverpool and another episode he splices among them - the best in the book.

Once Rachel's son has become an Islamist, and taken the civil war around him to be a jihad, he dies in a minefield; in her grief, Rachel then undergoes an ecstatic ritual in which drums and dancing help to remove the djinn that has entered her in place of her son. Quite apart from being terrific writing in itself, the unforced comparison makes the jazz sections all the stronger.

It seems that the trick with this novel is to look not at its sententious moments but at the fringes. Jade's story, in which she overworks, overdrinks and is nearly tempted into taking her employers to court for racial and sexual discrimination, might have its own moments of tension; but the thematic core really lies with Rachel.

The novel ends with her voice, in a passage that echoes Conrad's Heart of Darkness: what is it, she wonders, that possessed people in the age of colonisation to explore Africa, and to go native, just as she has done a century later? She doesn't know. Of herself and her husband, she writes: "We thought the world was growing wider, more inclusive. And now it seems it was actually drifting in the other direction." So it's fitting that the characters Mahjoub includes in his story barely belong in it.

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