Almost halfway through "The Bleeding Heart," by Lionel Shriver (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 427 pages, $22.95), the narrator explains the cause of the world's troubles: "As you are in pieces, so your cities shall fragment." In this novel and in two previous novels, Ms. Shriver suggests that streets are in shambles because people make the world in their own image. In the 20th century, this image reflects a fragmented self. Ms. Shriver, like many contemporary novelists, holds a mirror up to that self. The effect of these novels isn't so much entertainment as it is discovery.
Set in Belfast, a city at war with itself, the novel opens as Farrell O'Phelan has just ended a 20-year career deactivating bombs. Farrell lives on the edge. Born in Northern Ireland to a demanding mother and a weak father, Farrell had dreamed of becoming a priest. Violence destroyed those dreams.
Now, Farrell, in his late middle age, falls in love with Estrin Lancaster, 32, an American who, like Farrell, refuses to take sides. For Estrin, the Nationalists and Unionists of Belfast are warring "fragments." Much of the novel explains those wars and demonstrates their bloody effects. The climax occurs when Farrell organizes an election to bring peace; the results bring tragedy. Focusing on ill-fated lives and misbegotten love, the novel describes attempts to work out what Estrin calls a "real" life. But as this stunning and horrifying novel sees it, people live a lie. When they learn that truth, it's often too late.
Sylvia Walters, the protagonist of Ted Mooney's second novel, "Traffic and Laughter" (Knopf, 402 pages, $19.95), works in Hollywood, Calif., "a city of special effects." As the daughter of a career diplomat, Sylvia learned the difference between reality and appearance. Now divorced, working as a disc jockey, she again must distinguish between the two.
Like the characters in Mr. Mooney's award-winning first novel, "Easy Travel to Other Planets," Sylvia lives in anxious times. When the story opens, fire carried by the Santa Ana winds rages across Southern California and forces Sylvia "to reinvent her life." Doing that, she meets Michael, an attractive stranger, and befriends Nomanzi Lolombela, the daughter of a diplomat who has been exiled from Cape Town, South Africa. In Paris, meanwhile, Sylvia's father, Paul Walters, has been negotiating a treaty to control a newly developed secret weapon. That TC weapon, according to Joseph Lolombela, Nomanzi's father, would, if used, "reinvent the world."
Business takes Sylvia, Michael and Nomanzi from Hollywood to Paris to Cape Town. In each city, their lives become enmeshed in diplomatic crises. Each city, furthermore, becomes a place where nothing is as it seems: People supposed to be dead appear; they tell conflicting stories and give conflicting advice. Coincidences occur; Sylvia and Nomanzi have predictive and oddly similar dreams. Mysterious fires, which foreshadow other mysterious fires, start; clocks stop at precisely 8:16 a.m. The novel shifts time, and characters simultaneously live in the present and in a historical past -- 1945, specifically those minutes, and the seconds before, the bombing of Hiroshima. The climax is both startling and confusing, as if Mr. Mooney had tried too hard to make a point. Nonetheless, this flawed story makes compelling reading. It asks readers to consider when, not whether, the world will explode.
"Licorice," the third book and second novel by Abby Frucht (Graywolf Press, 211 pages, $18.95), is set in a dead-end town where shops close and women vanish. Told as a dramatic monologue, the novel develops through symbols, each symbol suggesting an apparent reality that on closer inspection becomes something greater. Liz, the protagonist, serves as a consciousness for these symbols. As she describes what she sees, she takes readers into a miragelike world. Her subject, at first, is herself and her sense of loss; gradually, though, it becomes the female psyche and its growing awareness of death and renewal.
This awareness is one Liz wants to share with her soul mate, Emily. Readers never know whether Emily exists or whether she's a projection. Whoever Emily is, she's someone that Liz loves. And she's a focus for Liz, almost a muse. Much of the novel consists of an imaginary conversation between Liz and Emily. During that conversation, Liz realizes that the women who have disappeared haven't moved away. Rather, they have acknowledged emotional distance. It's a distance Liz also feels. The mother of a young child, in a comfortable marriage, she describes herself as, "bloated with waiting. Until I was only desire."
This is a difficult yet beautifully told story, reminiscent of Molly Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce's "Ulysses." Ms. Frucht's prose, often fragments of conversation and thought, is rich with symbolism, imagery and allusions; as Liz speaks, she becomes the voice of the eternal feminine, nature itself. Her function isn't to judge; it's to discover. In those discoveries she, like the rest of us, finds sadness but also delight and love.
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.