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FICTION
Nicolas Rothwell
Text Publishing, $29.99

''You want to see patterns,'' says a ghostly figure towards the end of Nicolas Rothwell's new novel. ''And sometimes there are patterns. Sometimes we do remember, and see life's shape, but the structures that we build - they fail to hold, to crystallise: we lose them.'' It's this sense of inevitable loss, of a constant, tragic yearning for permanence and meaning in the face of irresistible change, that gives this unique book its profound unity.

Although his writing always touches - however delicately - the slippery earth between fact and invention, Belomor is Rothwell's first book to be labelled fiction since Heaven and Earth in 1999. It's an ambient, spiritual journey spanning four continents, narrated by a nameless traveller, one who is ''present, but not visible''. Like Conrad's Marlow, this figure disappears behind the stories and confessions of others, emerging only when some revelation seems close at hand.

The title comes from Belomorkanal, a brand of strong cigarettes introduced in the Soviet Union to commemorate the White Sea-Baltic Canal. It is also the name of the first chapter. Each subsequent chapter also bears the name of a cigarette brand, except the last, Mingkurlpa, which is a wild tobacco found in central Australia.

''Sometimes a cigarette is more than just a cigarette,'' Rothwell writes, and it seems clear that the image of the cigarette works as a symbol pointing towards a spirit of fixed contemplation. We are where the soul grows quiet and the eye rests, the point where ''ideas and thought vanish, and feelings stay''. The logic is that of meditation, of spirituality.

In each chapter, the life of a European artist or, more usually, an art historian - a Winckelmann or a Panofsky, someone in search of hidden truths - is examined in a long, ruminative essay, which then casts its oblique light on a parallel life, one of Rothwell's geniuses of obscurity, the ''people who've looked into the heart of life''.

So, for example, we meet Palomor, a young python enthusiast whose struggle for oneness with nature is contrasted with the great scholar Aby Warburg's investigation of religious thinking in primitive societies.

The subtle shifts in tempo, the variegated approaches to enlightenment, however, together with the natural luxury of Rothwell's prose style, where the sentences flow gracefully like smoke from a cigarette, lift this novel well beyond its formal framework.

Theme, image and story connect across chapters in an unforced, organic manner, and the work runs in a wholly absorbing way, where discursive style and fiction mingle to become indistinguishable.

This is a remarkable work, tinged with sadness and verging on poetry, tempered now and then with humour and authentic historical insight.

It is a contemporary Australian novel of such beauty, it's hard to find a precedent.