Title: "Hula"Author: Lisa SheaPublisher: W. W...

BOOK BRIEFS

May 01, 1994|By SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE Title: "Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived" Author: Penelope Lively Publisher: HarperCollins Length, price: 160 pages, $20 | SUSANNE TROWBRIDGE Title: "Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived" Author: Penelope Lively Publisher: HarperCollins Length, price: 160 pages, $20,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Dead Men's Heart" Author: Aaron Elkins Publisher: Mysterious Press Length, price: 227 pages, $18.95

Title: "Hula"

Author: Lisa Shea

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Length, price: 155 pages, $15 This small, splendidly self-assured first novel tells the story of two summers in a young girl's life, capturing a slice of childhood in a keen and unsentimental fashion. The nameless narrator is 9 years old when the book begins. She spends the long, hot days with her older sister; but even their most innocent games somehow take on a darker dimension.

Favorite pastimes, such as donning grass skirts and dancing the hula, can only be done in secret, lest they attract the attention of their disapproving father. "My mother says something happened our father in the war but my sister says he is just mean," the girl states. "In the back of his head is a hole where no hair grows. Where no hair grows there is a metal plate attached to his head. In the sun, light strikes the metal plate like signals from a flying saucer."

It's obvious from the very first page, which describes the sisters playing torture games with their headless, legless dolls, that "Hula" is not going to present a rosy picture of childhood. The fact that the father, tormented by his wartime memories, is gradually slipping into madness becomes increasingly clear; that the girls accept this with a quiet matter-of-factness makes it all the more chilling. Lisa Shea's spare, powerful prose and sharp eye for memorable details make "Hula" a striking debut.

Penelope Lively believes that the experience of childhood is "irretrievable"; all that remains is a "headful of brilliantly frozen moments." Born in Cairo in 1933, she was shipped back to England in the last year of World War II, losing her mother to divorce and her beloved nanny in the process.

The frozen moments in this memoir sparkle beautifully, but the glue that holds them together is the clear connection we as readers are able to make between Ms. Lively's post-Victorian/Edwardian upbringing, in which the motivations and rationalizations used by adults for their actions are completely hidden from their children, and what one takes to be her sincere puzzlement over the irretrievability of childhood.

She does not yearn, in these pages, for her inner child, but revels in what she calls the "discovery of concealed experience." To the modern American reader, this may be the most exotic thing about "Oleander, Jacaranda."

But for a small matter of 100 years, we almost have forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver running smack into Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody Emerson in Aaron Elkins' latest novel, "Dead Men's Heart."

The man who reads bones is off to Egypt to do promotional work for his university. Before he has time to adjust for jet lag, he is in the middle of another adventure.

Far up the Nile he gets into scrapes that would have pleased Mrs. Emerson, who roamed the same area a century ago for writer Elizabeth Peters. In fact, Mr. Elkins and Ms. Peters visited the area together, and he pays tribute to her several times in the book as well as makes good use of her area of expertise.

But the heart of the book, the best part of the series, is Gideon Oliver's expertise, his ability to look at a smattering of bones and, if not solve the crime, at least tell an awful lot about the victim. He does that twice this time and, as usual, one wishes he had a chance to do it more.

This time the victim is a crusty archaeologist whose insistence that he saw something is not taken seriously until he is found dead. And then it is only Oliver who begins to believe him. But he has trouble convincing the Egyptian police that the death could be murder.

Actually, the archaeologist is the second victim. The first one may have been 4,000 years old. You see this depression in the skull . . .

MYRON BECKENSTEIN

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