The victim runs away, then returns to Hawaii

September 19, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

SLEEPING BEAUTIES

Susanna Moore

Knopf

239 pages. $21

In 1969, 13-year-old Clio Lynott, abandoned by her mother, neglected by her father and abused by her stepmother, seeks refuge with her Aunt Emma in Wisteria House, a decaying family mansion set in a dark grove surrounded by downtown Honolulu. Thus begins Susanna Moore's troubling and beautiful new novel, "Sleeping Beauties," whose title seems to refer to the Hawaiian Islands themselves.

Clio, like her cousins Mamie and Claire Clarke -- the protagonists of Ms. Moore's last novel, "The Whiteness of Bones" -- belongs to Hawaii's landed gentry, the descendant of "a princess of full Hawaiian blood" and "a shipwrecked Irish sailor." Emma, who has devoted herself to studying Hawaiian history and folklore, soon makes Clio her willing pupil: "Clio was relieved to exchange the story of her own childhood for the vision that Emma conjured up for her."

In "Sleeping Beauties," Ms. Moore explores more fully the themes of commitment and escape, history and the denial of the past, sexuality and abuse, and isolating nature and corrupt society that have animated her other fiction. Her first novel, "My Old Sweetheart," told the story of destructive, vulnerable Anna Shields, driven to depression and suicide by her husband's infidelity, from her daughter Lily's point of view.

"The Whiteness of Bones" is a paradigm of innocence anexperience. Like Lily Shields, Mamie Clarke assumes guilt not only for her own actions but for those of others -- the gardener's sexual advances to her as a child, her father's death in a tidal wave. As a young woman, she escapes to New York, where a worldly aunt introduces her to a decadent society based on exploitation. Joined by her sister Claire, whose behavior leads from carelessness to degradation, Mamie gradually realizes that she cannot save her sister and that her ultimate responsibility is to herself.

In "Sleeping Beauties," Clio Lynott is another guilty victim seeking to escape, first from her father and stepmother, and, as an adult, from Hawaii. At 27, a museum historian working in the Department of Oceanic Myths, Clio gets away by marrying movie star Tommy Haywood, who takes her to live in Malibu after she has known him for only two weeks.

Ms. Moore depicts Clio's experience of Los Angeles as satirically as Mamie's New York in "The Whiteness of Bones." Clio spends her days drinking margaritas around the pool with Tommy's friends and associates, mainly vapid, shallow schemers -- like Tommy himself.

Tommy is not only unpleasant but evil. After he brutally beats up Clio while on location for a film in Marrakech -- a scene Ms. Moore chooses to omit from the novel -- Clio at last escapes back to Emma and Hawaii. But Tommy pursues her and makes allies of the opportunistic members of her family -- her wicked stepmother, her amoral father, her weak brother Dix and her vacuous cousin Claire.

Present evil merges with the evil of the past. Clio confronts the code of the island girl -- fearless, resilient, uncomplaining -- inculcated in her by Emma, which she realizes contributed to her abuse.

By nature proud and passive, Clio finds it difficult to defend herself. When she questions her father, a lawyer, about his prosecution of the Kilohana brothers, who have occupied government property claiming that the land was given to their forebears, she is unable to refute him.

She was similarly unable to defend herself against Tommy. Confronted with his lack of guilt, she explains to Emma, she assumed that she was somehow guilty.

Unlike her aunt and her grandmother, who both fell in love across class and racial boundaries but lacked the courage, will or self-interest to confront social barriers, Clio is able to be open in her emerging love for Henry Kilohana, a native Hawaiian and cousin to the Kilohanas.

Ms. Moore writes with elegance, grace and precision. Some of the most moving passages in the novel evoke the Hawaiian landscape -- a volatile, exquisite Eden. There's this description of the rain forest: "Clio could smell the resin of the turpentine trees. The sky seemed always to be just ahead of her, the color of a wet abalone shell. She had often noticed that at the moment of nightfall the wind held itself back, a refined and considerate wind, reluctant to disturb the trees."

Through her love for Henry, Clio discovers the strength and character to confront her abusers of past and present. In a frightening, cathartic climax, Clio, her aunt and her grandmother are reconciled to their personal and collective histories. Disturbing and consoling, "Sleeping Beauties" is Ms. Moore's most powerful and accomplished novel.

A5 Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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