Reading faces like a book

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Fever and Spear

Javier Maras

Chatto & Windus, 17.99

'TELLING is almost always done as a gift" says narrator Jacques Deza at the opening of this novel. Deza has moved from Madrid to London to distance himself from his newly divorced wife, and he might be forgiven for feeling a little cynical about the 'gift' of telling.

He remembers the stories he and his wife have told one another and realises that they will be given away, remade or cast off in the telling of new stories.

To distract himself from such thoughts, Deza returns to the life he knew on a previous stay in England, contacting old friends and colleagues and promising himself a fuller, less compromised life now that he is alone.

Betrayal and deception are in the air, however, and every encounter, beginning with a dinner party given by his former mentor Sir Peter Wheeler, is laced with poison. At Wheeler's dinner, Deza is introduced to the mysterious Bertram Tupra, a member of that shadowy stratum of the intelligence community that goes unmentioned in books and newspapers. As the novel progresses, he is drawn into a complex world of pretence and disinformation - a world in which his old friend Wheeler plays a central role.

Wheeler and Tupra believe that Deza has a gift: the ability to predict a man's future actions merely by studying his face. They are convinced that he can identify not only those who might commit a crime or betray a secret, but also those predisposed to become victims.

When Deza protests that people can change, that they are not "all of a piece", Wheeler reminds him that "it is also true that, right from the start, we see much more in others and in ourselves, much more than we think we do. As I said before, the biggest problem is that we don't usually want to see, we don't dare to."

This is a marvellous twist on an old theme: it is not that we cannot know others, it is that we want to be deceived and so preserve our illusions. We look away; we build smokescreens of words and gestures; we make up acceptable stories and pass them on, as poisoned gifts, to others.

In this brilliant dark novel, Maras has taken a central philosophical concern and set it before us in a new light, at once magical and terrifying in its implications for what we most value: for love, for justice and for the belief that we are who we say we are, when we think we are being honest.