Duality, loss and alienation: these themes haunted Emma Neale's previous novels, Night Swimming and Little Moon. In the former, a woman struggles to find a friend who vanishes into thin air; in the latter, the protagonist comes to terms with a sibling's death. Loss upon loss.

Neale's latest offering, Double Take, follows an all-too familiar course. Set in Dunedin during the 1970s and 1980s, it details the fraught growing-up of fraternal twins Jeffrey and Candy Marshall.

Neale's language when describing the twins is pertinent, lyrical and profound. For instance, during a pre-birthday quarrel Neale describes Candy's memory of her brother:

"She thought of how at school he'd move away from her as if she were a magnet pushing another magnet away ... As if her following him was exactly what made him flee."

Language alone, though, does not make a good novel. Readers need an intriguing plot. Double Take is not without potential. The twins conduct an understated, often unspoken war. At its heart is their mutual attempt to shed their innate closeness and forge individual lives. Here, Jeff, the first-born, claims a six-minute superiority over Candy. However, it is soon clear that this fleeting time-difference is not enough, and when in her late-teenage years Candy takes up the guitar and then contemplates a career in journalism, Jeff is quick to mirror her initiatives.

The novel's flipside is the way family and strangers react to and interact with Candy and Jeff. It is these meetings that essentially propel Double Take forward, chapter by chapter. There are the burdened father and the depressive mother. There's the school bully, for whom the twins are equal parts torment and fascination. There's Candy's first amour, the flatmates, and Lewis, the man she believes is her soulmate. Like the prose, these secondary characters are clever and accurate, particularly the disturbed and disturbing Jayshir.

Where Double Take falters is in its focus. Primarily, this is a first-person narrative (we see only Candy's true point of view). Though ordinarily this might not be a problem, in Double Take, where issues connected with twinning are so crucial, we are consequently denied much of Jeff's reasoning and rationale. This is a critical deficiency, because the turning point of the novel (and the relationship between the twins) is anchored to Jeff and his sexuality.

In the end, we see Jeff's revelation only as it is mirrored in Candy's eyes, and her response to it feels both deeply one-sided and unrealistic. It is hard, for instance, to believe that when Candy's twin brother discloses his deepest secret, her only reaction is egotism and self-interest.

Double Take's focus is, at times, highly sweeping. A key example of this comes halfway through the narrative when Candy sits down for an evening of gossip with her girlfriends. The problem here is twofold. First, these girlfriends seems to have come out of nowhere, and Candy's connection to them is invisible and unexplored. Secondly, it raises the issue of gender. That Candy does have girlfriends, that she is a young woman whose development marks the sole, clear difference she has from her brother, is surely significant when exploring the complex dynamic between fraternal twins.

Using twins as fictional inspiration is nothing new - take, for instance, Darin Strauss' Chang and Eng and Sarah Quigley's After Robert. If dual identity is a la mode, then Neale's attempts to spin a different slant on the relationship between twins is praiseworthy; getting two central characters for the price of one is a potential treat. However, there is a general belief that an author's third novel should be much better than its predecessors, should - in effect - be twice as nice. In this, Double Take falls short of its promise.

Random House, $26.95

* Siobhan Harvey is an Auckland writer and tutor.