Book review: Mistaken

Mistaken by Neil Jordan John Murray, 314pp, £18.99

A poignant symmetry - beginning with a funeral - and ending with the same death - provides this novel, Neil Jordan's fifth, with a self-conscious elegance, perfectly marrying form and content, mood and imagery, time and place.

Only much later, if not in tranquillity (the aftershocks remain), does one appreciate the formalities, the technical and architectural care with which this story has been assembled. Its themes - of identity, love and belonging, of fathers and sons, and of duality - are old hat. Its direct narration is compelling - strikingly so in the opening chapters and at the marvellous, tarnished bauble of a conclusion. The novel is so precisely written, in every detail, each syllable weighed, or so it feels, that reading slowly, you find yourself watermarked by a tale you don't wish to put down, and can't bear to end.

"I had been mistaken for him so many times" - the novel begins - "I attended his funeral, to say goodbye to that part of myself that would abide now in the cold clay of Deansgrange, to be wept over… by an ex-wife, two children and a family dog. It was the dog that caused the trouble in the end."

That small wry twist - the troublesome dog - the archaic use of the verb to "abide", plus alliteration assist the slipstream of the three-sentence opening riff. Jordan (conspiring with his narrator, Kevin Thunder), has you rapt. In a single stroke you've been vouchsafed the novel's curtain call, its key players, the hook of the plot, and of course that mischievous dog.

As the tale unravels, it also alters, becoming an elegy to itself, and to the mysteries and accidents that govern our sundry lives. The man who has died, Gerald Spain, a former poet and writer of literary fiction, was raised in south Dublin among the gentry after the war, wanting for nothing, a scallywag rich boy.

Kevin Thunder, hauled up on the north side in a house next door to Bram Stoker's old address, the father a bookie, mother a dreamer at stove and sink, taking in lodgers all through his childhood, speaking a rawer class of English, stumbles into the other's presence when a bus conductor harangues him for dodging a fare, and he is ejected from an arcade for cheating, and then a girl, one of several never seen before, propositions him, assuming intimacy. Soon Kevin, piecing together the shreds of his double's everyday habits, guesses the truth.

He seeks Gerald out, the two sides of Dublin face to face, uncannily mirroring each other's boyish gestures, features, aura, one accent twanging, the other couth, sharing pheromones (the lure that haunts the girls), perhaps even a soul. Yet no deep affinity, no attraction comes into play. Neither appears to be disconcerted. And, curiously, at first, no curiosity exists as to why they share such a troublesome, likeness. They simply bear it matter-of-factly, and later use it, running into each other by chance from time to time, and when Gerald's writing career kicks off, he initially uses the name Kevin Thunder.

Kevin follows Gerald's trajectory as a novelist, while pursuing his own career in graphic design, each growing older, Gerald marrying, Kevin sharing his north side house with his widower father, a pile of memories mourned in silence, decades passing in their long and occasional game of touch and go.

The constant is Dublin, evoked in colours of sombre beauty, not of nostalgia. Connective tissue of bricks and canals, the sweet shops of childhood, Nelson's pillar before its bombing, create a constancy of mood reminiscent of the plangent mid-life novels of Graham Greene, imminent loss the constant stalker.

Two things make this tale a stand-out read: First, Jordan's restraint; he avoids a plot in which Kevin or Gerald commits a crime, and for which the other will take the punishment (we come close in a scene in New York, when, Kevin, playing the part of Gerald, partakes in a death) which would have skewed the dramatic landscape.

The other coup is the novel's structure - it is essentially an intimate revelation, by Kevin to Emily, Gerald's daughter, after the two have become acquainted at Gerald's graveside in the story's opening gambit. Emily learns about the dead father's other life while discovering new and deep affinity with a man she scarcely knows yet has known forever.

How they are linked - by more than mere words - is eventually told. The ploy gives the novel perspective, and the words evolve into a spell that makes the story unputdownable.