cover image The Hide

The Hide

Barry Unsworth. W. W. Norton & Company, $22 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03955-9

A gallery of creepy misfits stalk the grounds of an English estate in Unsworth's bizarre, intermittently seductive tale of obsession, an early work from the Booker Prize-winning (Sacred Hunger) novelist available for the first time in the U.S. Two alternating narrators--one cultured, the other vulgar--make a nice contrast. Mild-mannered, highly articulate Simon Thebus, a narcissist and Peeping Tom whose fetishes include collecting pictures of women donning stockings, has spent two years digging a secret network of roofed trenches and tunnels on the estate where he lives, which belongs to his sister, Audrey Wilcox. Josh Murphy is the crude, cunning 20-year-old part-time gardener Audrey has hired. From his clandestine underground retreat, Simon spies on Audrey, a neurotic widow and art connoisseur; on Josh; and on Marion, the naive, orphaned teenage housekeeper whom Josh, a virgin, wants to seduce. Josh looks up to Mortimer Milligan, a co-worker at the fair where they operate stalls. Mortimer fancies himself a philosophical realist, which boils down to a raunchy sexual braggadocio and, on one occasion, to forcing Josh to drive a thorn through a live bird's brain. When Simon mischievously puts teeth in the mousse of one of Audrey's guests, she gives him one month to leave, setting in motion more spying and betrayals as he does everything in his power to stay. There are some deliciously wicked moments, but the plot goes nowhere. Part of the problem is that all the other oddball characters remain remote because they are seen through the eyes of either the perversely self-absorbed Simon or the clueless, foundering Josh. Still, Unsworth has elegantly constructed his modern, intimately scaled notes from underground. (June)