POET AND DANCER By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (John Murray, $255) RUTH Prawer Jhabvala is probably better known for her Oscar-winning work as a script-writer with the formidable Merchant-Ivory film-making team, creators of moody masterpieces such as Howards End and A Room with a View. These films are hardly known for the strength of the plot but sustain attention by delving into the complexities of human relationships. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Poet and Dancer is similarly light on plot but highly rewarding in its exploration of the relationship between the strong-willed, beautiful and slightly crazy Lara and her cousin Angel, a solid, reliable woman who has spent herlife devoted to her mother, exchanging that devotion for a new attachment to Lara. The Polish-born, English-educated and India-preoccupied Mrs Prawer Jhabvala is more often to be found exploring the strange hinterland of Anglo-Indian relationships, marked by the exquisite mutual incomprehension of colonisers and the colonised. Poet andDancer, however, is set in New York where relationships, sometimes mediated by professional meddlers in matters of the mind, are no less complex, nor misunderstanding any less profound. At the best of times, families provide fertile ground for conflict, passion and love. In this skilful work the author adds to the mixture with hints of sex, matters financial and a small trove of family secrets. The pace is slow yet the reader is quicklyabsorbed by the story. There is something strongly evocative about this book which I found hard to place until I realised that the atmosphere of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's work was strongly reminiscent of the tortured world occupied by Anita Brookner, another writer of Middle European ancestry, working hard to corner the market in angst. Both writers create an intense world always teetering on the edge but never quite erupting into disaster. There is a sense of dark foreboding and inadequacy about the central character, in this case Angel, which nevertheless does not prevent the reader from acquiring a certain degree of sympathy for her. It is hard to imagine a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala book without some Indian element and sure enough it is present in this work. TheArora family provides a well-drawn sub-plot which mingles rather awkwardly with the main story but adds a little extra. Married to an Indian and living half the year in Delhi she really is good at dealing with Indian characters. It has been six years since her last book. Poet and Dancer, despite its eccentricities, or maybe because of them, is well worth the wait.