The Fountain at the Centre of the World, by Robert Newman

Penguin Canada, 339 pp, $25, hardcover.

Two Mexican brothers are separated as infants. One, adopted into affluent society, becomes Evan Hatch, "issues-management" consultant for oil, water, power, mining, and banking conglomerates. Older brother Chano Salgado stays in Mexico and becomes an antiglobalization activist. In 1999, Evan is diagnosed with leukemia, so he sets off to find his long-lost brother, or, more accurately, his brother's bone marrow. Only it turns out he is really suffering from Chagas' disease, a Third World illness transmitted by the bite of a beetle in infancy that lays dormant until it wakes up in the adult, deadly and incurable.

It's the perfect premise for an antiglobalization novel, offering an angle into both sides of the polemic, a situation that clearly delineates the issues, and the satisfaction that the bad guy gets what he deserves. Too bad it doesn't quite work.

Where Newman succeeds, he triumphs. Although the author is an activist himself, he draws Evan with sympathy and complexity. The active sequences positively crackle; the best part of the book is a behind-the-scenes look at the "battle of Seattle", the WTO protests that erupted in November 1999.

The novel fails too often. Newman sets us up for killer scenes, but, as with a crucial meeting between Chano and Evan where nothing really happens, these moments frequently fizzle. Much of this book is spent with characters while they are alone or deeply immersed in their thoughts. These are not very dynamic situations, and it doesn't help that Newman abstains from using quotation marks in dialogue; this style might be in vogue, but it causes readers to stumble rather than skate.

The titular fountain, located in the village where Evan and Chano were born, spurts out the "odd gargle and spatter" of water before drying up entirely, symbolic of both the political movement and the ultimate success of this novel. As the book closes, a girl notices a trickle of water there for the first time in years. "She waits, as if any moment the fountain might spit the grit and dead leaves from its teeth and gush high into the dry air."