Observer review: The Nose by Elena Lappin

Elena Lappin traps a story of dreadful secrets inside one of a perky young journalist in The Nose

The Nose
Elena Lappin
Picador £14.99, pp229

Elena Lappin has written the ghost of a novel about a serene mother and grandmother with a dreadful past, unsuspected by her family. Unfortunately, she has imprisoned it in the embryo of another, the story of a perky young woman trying to inject a little oomph into a staid Jewish cultural magazine - the Nose of the title. Loss and damage rub their forlorn shoulders against irreverence and fun. It would have been possible, though difficult, to bring the two worlds together, painfully, fruitfully, but Lappin has done nothing to make it happen.

Lappin edited The Jewish Quarterly for several years, so her account of journalistic life, though inert, isn't actively unreal. Otherwise, she has something of a reverse Midas touch when it comes to supplying details. If a book refers, after all, to a couple 'walking their cat', it's fair to expect some rudimentary portrait of this unusual animal, something to prove it's not a typo.

Natasha Kaplan, the editor-heroine of the book, wrote a mystery novel while at college, before she ever moved to London. A decade later, Mrs Cohen's Last Supper is still miraculously in print, and one week even ranks 2,001st in amazon.com's sales listings. Natasha suspects a perversely literate anti-Semitic plot (the online reviews are derogatory), but in the real world the publishers who have shown such faith would be pestering her for a sequel anyway, pelting her with cheques.

The only bit of research Lappin seems to have done is into the British Transport Police, her chosen employers for the heroine's husband, Tim, even if the end result is only an Avengers-style scheme by neo-Nazis to destroy the Tube. For a moment, it looks as if she plans to use Tim to portray Judaism from outside, the moment when she writes: 'It had never really occurred to him until that moment that he was the father of a Jewish child.' A good person to ask about such issues would have been the rabbi who married him. The moment is repeated 80 pages later - 'Tim, didn't you know this? I'm so sorry...' - without being developed.

A mysterious donation to the magazine makes Natasha turn detective, but all the answers she seeks are there in her own family and would have come out even if she'd made no inquiries (bit of a tension-killer, that).

Lappin favours a melting approach to point of view, so that one character's perspective runs into another, a difficult technique to bring off, but only absolutely a mistake when, as here, your plot is all about secrets. If we hear directly from Natasha's mother, Alice, and she holds all the keys, why shouldn't we hear the whole story direct from her?

Alice and Natasha's father, Sam, are a famous New York bohemian couple. Again the eerie unconvincingness. If Sam had really filmed his wife giving birth for a feature-length film released in 1954, no one could call him an imitator of Warhol, and if he had made films over more than 40 years starring the same woman, celebrating her sexuality, no one would compare him with any other film director whatever. Admittedly, Natasha, too, admires the way her sixtysomething mother walks, with 'her full breasts still pointing the way', but her perspective may be skewed.

When she interviews a seventysomething refugee from Hitler's Germany, it isn't only his testimony that holds her attention. 'Natasha wondered what happened to old men's penises: could they, too, be described as sprightly?'

The most wince-inducing moment in The Nose, the point at which perkiness rubs up against sombre historical vista most rawly, is the scene when Natasha verifies that sprightliness. This is one of the very few accounts of good sex between young woman and elderly man not to be written by an elderly man, but it's hard to feel grateful or enlightened.

Alice's secrets are revealed when she comes to London to give evidence at the trial of a Nazi filmmaker called Annmarie Goetz. It's very unpersuasive psychologically that Alice simply decides at this point in her life to be open about everything; mind you, she made joyous soft-porn films with her husband for 40 years while a clenched ball of trauma, so she's obviously one of a kind. But it's the trial that sets records for imaginative thinness.

If Goetz was known to have made an arty snuff movie using concentration-camp inmates, why wasn't she tried after the war? How did she come by British citizenship? What new chain of events gave rise to the prosecution? What is the charge, exactly? Elena Lappin doesn't supply background of any description.

It hurts to say this, but there it is. Jeffrey Archer does it better. Witnesses don't just waltz into court and say what's on their minds, as Alice does, without exchanging a single word with a lawyer first. Then we're supposed to believe that the defence doesn't take the trouble to cross-examine the only survivor of an alleged massacre ('It was made clear to Alice that her testimony was considered complete'). Not surprising, then, that although Alice's evidence is dismissed as 'hearsay', which it isn't, 'Annmarie Goetz was sentenced to - something, they didn't know what exactly.' Perhaps the limbo reserved for fictions nobody could be bothered to imagine.

Contributor

Adam Mars-Jones

The GuardianTramp

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