Paperbacks ; ABC

Article excerpt

Santa: A life

By Jeremy Seal

PICADOR [pound]7.99

Almost every parent of young children knows what it is like to struggle each year with the narrative impossibility that is the Santa (or Father Christmas, or Saint Nicholas) story.

For starters, we're talking about a fat guy who can fit down chimneys; someone who spends one day a year travelling around the world faster than the speed of light; a paranormal figure who ultimately gets the credit for all the presents you have bought until your child is old enough to realise that yes, the narrative impossibilities were just that, and (under your breath now) there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

Or is there? Jeremy Seal knows as well as anyone how painful it is trying to keep the Santa myth going. Driving up the M5 with his daughter Anna to the NEC to visit Santa's Kingdom, Seal observes, "The forces of commerce, adept as kidnappers in the exploitation of parental love, had ticketed objects of childhood adoration accordingly. I had not troubled Anna with the fact that it cost a lot of money to enter Santa's Kingdom. I was more concerned with the Kingdom situation that was developing; the Kingdom that I anticipated and the one that Anna in her innocence imagined were unequal." Instead of accepting this plastic, commercial charade, Seal sets out to find the real story of Saint Nicholas, from the almost-forgotten image of a man at a Byzantine window coming to save three young women from hardship, to the Santa we know now. Part travelogue, part memoir and part history, this thoughtful book does for Santa what Iain Sinclair did for the M25.

But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury

By Gillian Freeman

ARCADIA BOOKS [pound]11.99

Gillian Freeman has a very interesting past.

Author of the gay classic The Leather Boys (under the pseudonym Eliot George), she's won acclaim in recent years for her portrait of Jewish life in the novel His Mistress's Voice. Now she has turned her mind to recreating the world of the Bloomsbury group, and the result makes for compelling reading.

The group's principal members, from Lytton Stratchey to Bertrand Russell, are carefully introduced; but the narrative hinges on the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. Virginia's highly sensitive nature is made immediately clear, as is one of the most commonly held reasons for the nervous breakdowns she suffered in her life. On the afternoon of her mother's funeral, her half-brother, George Duckworth, offers to comfort her but ends up sexually molesting her instead. Freeman is particularly successful in capturing Virginia's urge to challenge the status quo: "Of course you will go to heaven," her Aunt Adeline tells her. "There isn't such a place," Virginia replies. "When you die, you die."

Vanessa Bell comes across as particularly likeable, her open marriage to Clive Bell offering a less fraught counterpoint to Virginia's struggles. Some might argue that creating fiction from the lives of the Bloomsbury group would barely tax the most limited of writers; but bringing such overpowering characters to life on the page without merely reiterating the caricatures that they have become is something of which Freeman should be very proud.

Mr Cassini

By Lloyd Jones

SEREN BOOKS [pound]7.99

There's very little that will prepare you for Lloyd Jones's latest novel apart from, perhaps, his last: the travelogue-come- semi-fictitious memoir, Mr Vogel. W G Sebald covered similar territory with a greater degree of introspection and Alasdair Gray is as wedded to Scotland as Jones is to Wales, but few people write with this much verve any more. Our hero, who prefers to go by his nickname of Duxie, tells us he is a former professional footballer currently studying psychology, Eng literature, history and media studies at a small FE college. Not entirely by coincidence the narrative combines elements from each of these subjects as Duxie goes in search of his vanished friend, a beautiful young woman called Olly. …