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Highlights are overwhelmed by mundane details of a dull life

As a child, Lewis used to walk into the wardrobe, in the hope it would open on to a magical new country.

It never happened, but this desire for something more exciting was to become the refrain of this thwarted and timid man's life. As his father constantly told him, "You're all want". That is still true, it seems, even now he is retired from his post as a religious education teacher in the Midlands, in the same town where he was born.

Moore's second novel follows the well-received The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. That was the story of a disappointed man who goes on a walking trip to Germany, contemplating his many regrets.

Lewis comes from a similar mould, though without the energy it takes to organise a trip anywhere further than the local surgery. Seventy years old and widowed, he has a daughter, Ruth, who brings him soup every morning on her way to work, though he does not like soup. When she leaves, and kisses him, "He never knows what part of him she's aiming for."

Bit by bit, like a pointillist building a canvas with ever more dots, Moore dabs detail on to her portrait. She is adept at the sort of description that combines pathos and sly humour, although her flat, dead-pan style is better suited at times to the spoken word than to the written page.

Occasionally, though, one of her simple paragraphs is more powerful than a full, flowery page: "Lewis takes his broken spectacles out of his coat pocket and puts them down on the table in the hallway, to remind himself to get them mended. Also on the table is an ill-fitting dental plate that he needs to show to his dentist. The table resembles a small shrine to an old man, or an altar bearing sacrificial offerings so that the gods will look upon him kindly."

With chapters titled "He Wants A Cup Of Tea, or "He Wanted To Go To Australia", this novel is a Munch-like wail at an existence suffocated by frustration and boredom.

It would be profoundly affecting if one could warm to Lewis. Instead, his inertia, and supine defeatism in the face of people more forceful or characterful than he, becomes increasingly exasperating.

The sudden reappearance of an eccentric, unsettling old chum, not seen since they left school, sparks a flickering of renewed enthusiasm in Lewis. Such is the parsimonious and constricted nature of Moore's prose, however, that her protagonist has barely the vocabulary to express his hopes. The author's insistence on showing the minutiae of his life, as if these alone can speak for him, grows not just predictable, but self-consciously freighted with meaning.

What drama this tale holds is handled with such economy, it does nothing to leaven the prosaic pace and tone. The unhappy events that have shaped Lewis and his father, each incident accidental but violent, hint at the perpetual threat of tragedy that can colour even the most careful or controlled life.

Yet, devastating though their effect has been, their moment of revelation is not allowed to charge the tale, but is instead thrown away in a surfeit of understatement.

Perhaps the biggest problem with He Wants - and could there be a drearier title? - is not its downbeat telling, but the dullness of what it depicts.

A man's wasted life is a rich subject for fiction, but Moore instantly dampens the potential of her story with a plethora of mundane images.

Shop signs, spam email, commonplace domesticity leave the imagination unfired.

Fiction ought, if nothing else, to offer something novel, and in this respect He Wants is sadly lacking. At one point, the perpetually discontented Lewis bemoans the fact he has slept through several earthquakes: "He would like to experience an earthquake, to feel the ground shaking beneath him, to feel the bed trembling, and all the ornaments rattling like something out of an exorcism."

By the novel's end, I knew exactly how he had felt.

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