DECEITS OF TIME by Isabel Colegate


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A biographer's quest for the truth gives shape to Colegate's latest novel, a sharp and economical fiction that unravels a complex network of secrets. Whether for social or psychological reasons, everyone in this engaging narrative clings to some cherished illusion about the past. Catherine Hillery, a professional biographer in her late 50s, considers herself a sensible woman, with few doubts about her largely unexamined life. A grandmother and a widow, this proper matron assumes that the estate of Neil Campion--a semi-famous Conservative MP--chose her to write his biography because they appreciated her ""detached and calm"" style and her scholarly scruples. But she discovers not only that Campion's family assumes she'll miss the ugly side to his story, but that her own certainty about herself and her family is more imagined than real. Campion's mostly undistinguished life hardly seems worth a book. A WW I flyer, known to be arrogant and unclubbable, Campion married an empty-headed socialite and severed relations with his siblings. Now, both his aristocractic wife and his devoted brother and sister unite in their efforts to conceal Campion's dark secret--a fascist plot that Mrs. Hillery uncovers only with the help of one Alfred Madden, a mean-spirited gossip columnist with a major grudge against ""English smugness,"" so much of one that he unnecessarily manufacturers evidence of Campion's wild plan for a (Hitlerless) German-English alliance. Along the way, Mrs. Hillery despairs of finding out what Campion was really up to, just as she begins to face the truth about her unhappy marriage and her strained relations with her sons. Eventually, out of the ""constant and incomprehensible flux"" of time and memory, she fashions a stronger self, partly through her curious interest in Campion's handsome young grandson, a dreamy and intense 17-year-old whose ""unfocused ambition"" and ""ultra-romanticism"" help explain his less likable ancestor. Though the premise is familiar--a biographer must confront the difficulty of retrieving the past--seldom has it been given such elegant expression.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1988
Publisher: Viking