Manners, elephants, Treblinka

Novels Of Spring

April 25, 1999|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Red hot across the pond (and very warm over here), Joanna Trollope's novels are becoming a staple for English readers and Anglophiles everywhere. They top best seller lists, get adapted for "Masterpiece Theatre," and handily invoke the ghosts of her Victorian ancestor Anthony Trollope and other able 19th-century chroniclers of domestic manners. The younger Trollope's voice beckons the reader with all the easy affability, common wisdom and topicality of a smarter-than-average TV Movie of the Week.

In Trollope's new "Other People's Children" (Viking, 294 pages, $23.95), the topic of the moment is troubled stepchildren, who suddenly proliferate as one side effect of a marriage that is the second for bride and groom alike. Matthew's children Becky, Clare and Rory are riven by the loyalty they feel to their bohemian mother Nadine. Josie's son Rufus, meanwhile, shies from the noisy spectacle of these new, older stepsiblings and withdraws to befriend thirty-something Elizabeth, who is being courted by his father, Tom.

This may seem characters enough, but it just scratches the surface of a too densely populated novel. Trollope has a gift for plumbing the desires and anxieties of a wide range of characters and humanizing even the worst behaved among them. In "Other People's Children," however, her talent gets spread a little thin among a cast of dozens (or so it seems). With ephemeral characters outnumbering solid ones, and a shaggily episodic form, this diverting read is unlikely to stay and haunt the imagination.

A subtler novel of English manners is Penelope Lively's 17th book, "Spiderweb" (HarperCollins, 192 pages, $22). Lively, a Booker Prize winner for "Moon Tiger" (1987), plunks down free spirit Stella Brentwood in an English country village. The recently retired social anthropolgist casts a bemused observer's eye on the Somerset natives and their customs -- and an elegiac one on the collected scenes and images of a life that she has been leading too busily to stop and reflect on.

While Stella ruminates, the family that runs the farm next door practices an emotional terrorism on their children that by the end of the novel breaks the bounds of the family circle and edges into physical violence. The Hiscox story is interleaved with Stella's, but the two neighboring existences remain hopelessly blind to one another.

The shadowy story of the Hiscoxes reveals what of social life hides itself from even the keenest eye. It also goes to shatter the commonplace image of English rural life as quirky and quaint -- which, for all her observational acumen, remains Stella's image of it. Lively's enigmatic Shirley Jackson turn darkens and deepens a novel that might otherwise have been merely charming.

Canadian Kim Echlin's first novel, "Elephant Winter" (Carroll & Graf, 224 pages, $22), marks one of the more adventurous debuts in recent memory. Echlin's protagonist narrates her return from a Zimbabwe teaching post to tend to her dying mother in Ontario. All at once, Sophie falls in love with the elephant keeper at a new safari park near her mother's home. Her affair with Jo reads as fairly tepid, but Sophie's passion for his five elephants burns fierce and fascinating.

During the fateful Elephant Winter, Sophie comes to know her mother in new ways, as an artist and a girlfriend. She becomes pregnant with her own daughter by Jo, and befriends a mute zoologist who may be something other than he pretends. But the balance of her energy goes to learning the language of elephant sounds, which she records in a beautiful, lyrical Elephant-English Dictionary (the highlight of the novel).

"Elephant Winter" bears all the marks of a promising first novel. There is extraordinary writing in it: "The thin dawn taped itself like a piece of old and yellowing cellophane to the horizon and the cold adhered to my skin." But the prose is also subject to cold spells, to a hushed precision that hallows language but keeps life at bay.

Reading it can feel like walking on eggshells. Echlin, though, is a writer to watch, in the hope she will widen her range, loosen her voice and start to sing with abandon.

On an entirely different note and scale, Ian MacMillan's "Village of a Million Spirits: A Novel of the Treblinka Uprising" (Steer Forth, 257 pages, $24) revisits an improbably hopeful moment during the Holocaust. MacMillan, a teacher of writing at the University of Hawaii and the author of two previous novels about World War II, begins with the historical facts about what happened in that death camp in Poland in 1943. Jewish prisoners surprised their Nazi guards with a small arsenal painstakingly stockpiled over many months, set the camp ablaze, and fled into the woods.

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