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The Cloud of Dust by Charlie Boxer
published by Jonathan Cape, London, ISBN 0-224-06108-9, 10.00 hardback

"Is that a prayer book?" he asked. "No", I replied ,"it's a collection of letters from a lovelorn Edinburgh student to his mother and his best friend". He turned away. I knew he thought I was lying but for the rest of the flight my neighbour mercifully left me alone.

Adrift amongst the clouds, I prepared to drift off into Charlie Boxer's The Cloud of Dust. There was to be no drifting. It is an extraordinarily intense book. It is like being stuffed inside someone else's skull, blinking when they blink, thinking what they think, loving what they love. It is compelling but it is not always an easy ride. Time and time again I felt in the company of a young Dostoevsky, albeit it in a jean jacket wandering through the dark streets of Edinburgh rather than in a greatcoat on the avenues of St Petersburg. They share the same high moral vision of mankind that churns the narrator between euphoria and disgust. He can see too clearly that "not only is Edinburgh student society possibly the most rigidly stratified since pre-revolutionary France" but also that were "no more censorious and earnest people than my comrades" among his fellow Marxists. Between these two worlds exists a spectral city-scape filled with startled intelectuals, weary tutors and the comparatively humane society offered by drunks and street tramps. Kate, a woman "of unbrindled energy" burns through this melancholic miasma. Already pestered by dozens of lecherous men and living in the house of her handsome poet-singer-writer boyfriend, she "steals all interest from everyone else about me". The author's "inadequacy with her is so pronounced that I begin to stutter when I talk".

This verbal inarticulacy is not reflected on the page. The Cloud of Dust bursts into flames with some of the most acute and poignant descriptions of love in the English language. Erotic in its expectations but pure in its language, it is also wise like you wish your guru to be. Literate and reflective it swims between an idealistic, disarming innocence and a brooding passionate fatalism. You fear for the narrator.

At the end of the flight, I had turned the last of its 153 pages and I turned back to my neighbour. I glared with the wide eyes of a missionary and told him that he was right, it was a prayer book, and 'through love's pain we live forever".

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