cover image Female Ruins

Female Ruins

Geoff Nicholson. Overlook Press, $26.95 (236pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-036-9

This 12th novel by the popular British author is a meditative tale of a physical and psychological homecoming that builds its quiet and riveting plot through the dreams, achievements and theories of a dead architect with a mysterious legacy. The narrative opens on Kelly Howell, a not-quite-30 cabbie in a small town in rural Suffolk. Despite her impressive intellect and arch sensibility, Kelly is drifting, feeling doomed to mediocrity since she has failed to demonstrate talent commensurate with her late father's brilliance. Christopher Howell was a well-known architect who some regard as a genius, ""the greatest modern English architect never to have built a building,"" while others view his career as a failure. (Howell's unorthodox essays appear periodically throughout the novel as skewed commentary on the plot.) When American tourist Jack Dexter arrives in the village, he asks Kelly to be his driver for a week, citing an injured knee. She accepts reluctantly, but as she shows him the local sights, an understated romance develops. Their relations reach a standoff when Dexter reveals that he is neither injured nor a mere tourist, but a researcher of Christopher Howell's work who wants to show Kelly her father's only project, a never-completed hodgepodge of a mansion in the middle of the California desert. Kelly's long-stifled confusion about her father rises to the surface in a believable and unsettling manner. Is she resilient enough to bear both the burden of a family member's fame and the vagaries of romantic love? Nicholson eschews the sarcastic bite of his earlier books (such as Whitbread-nominee Bleeding London), unraveling a complex, subtle story with equally intricate and modulated characters. This restraint, which artfully leads the reader to the poignant yet satisfying denouement, gives the novel special appeal. (June)