Novels of March: The spirit of woman

March 01, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dozens of novels are being published this month. Ignore the indifferently written thrillers and explore these powerful works of the imagination. Each charts the coming of age of a woman of spirit and fortitude. Dorothy Allison's second novel, "Cavedweller," (Dutton. $24.95. 588 pages) introduces a new cast of indomitable working-class women in the hard, sassy, knowing voice that suffused her extraordinary "Bastard Out Of Carolina." Having abandoned two daughters to a brutish husband, and fleeing with a rock band called "Mud Dog," Delia returns to "Cayro," Georgia, with a third and sets about to reconcile her family. The real heroine is the collective of women friends at the novel's center who "take care of each other."

Even as fundamentalist religion poisons their lives, Allison's women struggle to get through "God's own boring workday" intact. Men offer little solace: Clint, who once brutalized Delia, is now dying miserably; women in Allison are always stronger than the men.

Survival is Allison's great theme, here more strongly imagined than in "Bastard Out Of Carolina" with its deflating ending. "There was a cost to everything," she writes. "Delia had paid all her life. When she looked at her girls, all she wanted was to have them not to pay as much." Her women are feisty, kind, bewildered, sad and lonely, but defeat is never an option.

***

"Oyster," by Janette Turner Hospital (Norton, 400 pages, $25,) is so harrowing a tale that it will seep into your soul. It is set in the Australian Outback, in a place called Outer Maroo, which is not even on any map. Moreso, it is a town of illegal opal traders and religious fanatics, who wreak havoc on each other and on any stranger foolish enough to venture there. "All of those who find the place are lost," Hospital writes of Outer Maroo where "Armageddons come and go."

Into this unholy landscape comes Messiah-guru Oyster, who through charismatic hypnosis, parallel to the town's heartless religion, and sexual intoxication, enslaves European and American backpackers. Morally vacant Generation X-ers, they are soon exploited as slaves in the mines and as sexual prey.

"The seduction of nowhere is hard to resist," Hospital writes as the foolish young drift to their Jonestown-style endgame. Amid the perpetual "odour of dead and dying cows," Mercy, age 16, a heroine of heartbreaking sweetness, searches for meaning and for freedom.

Mercy's mentor, her teacher Miss Susanna Rover, is murdered in a chilling episode, but she has left behind her books and her voice. Mercy learns to reject the solution of most of the women: "the secret of surviving is doing nothing, feeling nothing, hanging on." Mercy, "high and dry, stuck with consciousness," endures, miraculously, in this extraordinary book.

***

"Shadows Of A Childhood: A Novel of War and Friendship" by Elisabeth Gille (The New Press, $23, 144 pages), posthumously published, is a holocaust story of uncompromising psychological depth. Lea, age five, is deposited with the nuns at a convent in Bordeau, Vichy France, while her parents are slaughtered in Hitler's concentration camps.

After the war, adopted by the kindly parents of a convent friend, she is haunted and obsessed by the fate which should have been hers. Deeply affecting, and otherwise flawless, with flash forwards which suggest the methodology of memoir more than fiction, this novel is marred only by a gratuitous ending.

***

"Shiva Dancing" by Bharti Kirchner (Dutton, $23.95, 336 pages), a first novel, pictures 7-year-old Meena Kumari in India marrying her best friend Vishnu only on the same day to be kidnapped by bandits. Adopted to America, she becomes a software executive until a need for her roots forces her back to learn "how little Indian she was."

Indian women, unlike American, Kirchner writes, offer each other "love, trust and time." This nicely written tale which may be more appropriate for adolescent readers than the grown-up trade audience.

***

Anglo-Irish Ireland forms so rich a setting for Annabel Davis-Goff's "The Dower House" (St. Martin's Press, 274 pages, $22.95,) that it becomes a powerful theme in its own right. "The Dower House" of the title is the estate outbuilding accomodations widows displaced by the death of husbands and the marriages of eldest sons. Rules of inheritance among this dying class are scrupulously maintained.

Heroine Molly's loyalties are "to her country as opposed to England." The food, a character as dominant as the class, is uniformly "disgusting," from the fatted lamb of the first Sunday lunch to the hollowed-out Stilton exposing a single slimy maggot. Throughout the book, Molly can scarcely swallow her food.

The girls may attempt to "hunt down and marry" men of birth and wealth, but this novel is about the furnishings of a vanishing way of life, told with expert authority. The lilt of the ending, "anything one has to ask for is not worth having," equally expresses the grace of this dying breed which author Davis-Goff reveals to be not without its manifest charm.

Joan Mellen, who has published 13 books, is completing a memoir entitled "An Enemy In The House." She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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