University novel, historical romance or metaphysical whodunnit a la Umberto Eco? Maureen Duffy's latest fiction has elements of all three, but boldly reworks each genre. Saturated in her characteristic seriousness of purpose and love of poetic language, Alchemy is unashamedly a novel of ideas. It is also a hugely absorbing read. The present-day narrative, in particular, takes on the thrill and thrust of page-turning adventure at its, literally, fiery climax.
Jade Green, a young solicitor, finds herself investigating unsavoury happenings and unexplained deaths at the private University of Wessex - funded by a mysterious American concern - at the behest of a lecturer dismissed for alleged satanism. Jade's client gives her a manuscript from the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Amaryllis, the author of these confessional pages, is a young woman masquerading as a page called Amyntas at the country seat of Margaret, Countess of Pembroke, where she is permitted to practise the medical and scientific skills she learnt from her father.
Duffy's contribution to British fiction has been acknowledged by a host of younger writers. She belongs to a generation - including BS Johnson and Brigid Brophy - who experimented with postmodernism and the nouveau roman. Beginning with the achieved simplicity of That's How It Was in 1962, her pursuit of form has proved more sustained and her choice of subject more varied than most. Her London trilogy - Wounds, Capital and Londoners - took experiments with voice, perspective and structure further without compromising accessibility.
Duffy's versatility eludes classification. Lesbian loves are richly present in her fictions, but other concerns prevail: expatriation and migration, the history of England and Europe, the place of the past and the recovery of traumatic memory, the impact of the political on the personal.
Since the early Nineties, Duffy's canvas has been increasingly expansive, her concern with political history and the idea of Europe overt. Alchemy is the fourth of what may well be read as a millennial quartet. Illuminations (1991) prophetically took a middle- aged academic to Germany, where the rise of European Neofascism was tellingly depicted. Like its successors, it juxtaposed past and present: an eighth-century nun's journey with the contemporary account. In Occam's Razor (1993), two elderly men, both immigrants, share memories of the Second World War; here, too, a historical figure, William of Occam, connects the present to the remote past. …