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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Oxygen lacks air of quality
Oxygen is Miller's third novel
By BBC News Online's Darren Waters

Any writer who can boast Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage as former teachers should know a thing or two about prose but Andrew Miller must have slept through a lecture or two.

Oxygen is the disappointingly straightforward tale of a dysfunctional West Country family coping with the impending death of a loved one.

Alec and Larry Valentine are two brothers who are trying to make sense of the inevitable death of their mother Alice - who has terminal cancer - while struggling with the chaos of their own personal lives.

Added to this is the slightly incongruous tale of a Hungarian exile and playwright, Laszlo Lazar, whose latest work, Oxygene, is being translated by Alec, the younger of the two brothers.

Andrew Miller weaves his tale of complex relationships in terse, almost perfunctory, language and there is little beauty in the prose at which one can marvel.

Typical frost

The language reflects, perhaps, the blunt way the characters go about their lives, with emotions restrained, constrained and often silent.

"It was the moment he might have gone to her - there were only three good steps between them - the moment he might have settled his hands on her shoulders and said the necessary things," Miller writes of a typical frost between Larry and his wife Kirsty.

But there is no devil in the detail of this relationship, and the phrase "necessary things" is typical of a book which uses two words when we crave many, many more.

Sadly, even if this terseness is intended, it makes for uninspiring reading.

Strained relationship

The characters, and the author himself, seem unwilling to confront some of the more intriguing chapters in their lives and it would seem that Miller has lost a great opportunity here to explore the depths of this creations.

Alec's breakdown and strained relationship with his mother is never tackled head-on, Larry's failing acting career and drift into soft pornography is only touched upon lightly, while Lazar's life-defining moment is dealt with in a series of dreary, almost lazy, passages.

At every turn, Miller seems to refuse to engage us in the more interesting aspects of the book and its characters and the book is an exercise in read frustration.

The book's female characters are drawn with pencil - and are only given supporting, peripheral roles, despite being, potentially, the most interesting.

The intriguing thing about family members is that they often do not know each other's secrets, but the readers should be given more insight, surely?

The book's themes have the transparency of oxygen, as the title suggests, but they never crystallize into anything remotely interesting.

Breathing is an automatic, unconscious action - reading and writing, on the other hand, should not be.

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