Glasgow, New England, a kidnapping

Five Midwinter Tales

January 30, 2000|By VICTORIA BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From deep in the dark midwinter burst forth the succulent buds of five marvelous new novels. Unable to afford that trip to Elsewhere as winds howl, snow billows and the flesh runs cold from dreams unrealized? Tuck in with one of these and be, as Emily Dickinson charged, taken miles away.

A. L. Kennedy isn't a name well-known to Americans, few of whom could name a Scottish writer other than Robert Burns. Hers is a startlingly flesh and richly nuanced voice. In "So I Am Glad" (Knopf, 280 pages, $23), she introduces M. Jennifer Wilson ("The M. stands for Mercy, I've no idea why"), a 30something Glasgowian radio announcer who has winnowed her emotional life down to a mere sliver of being; she does not feel, nor does she wish to. It may be due to a grotesque childhood, a sado-masochistic relationship with her former lover or simply that she prefers the calm : attendant to life as an observer, rather than participant.

And so she proceeds until Martin comes into her life, a lodger in the house she shares with three other people. Martin is no average lodger; he is not even the friend Pete had said would be coming to take on his room and expenses. He is the revivified spirit-- ghost if you will -- of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. Jennifer alone becomes privy to this information, which in time she comes to believe. With knowledge comes not only responsibility but inevitably, passion.

Kennedy's is a sharply unique and witty voice -- like Evelyn Waugh with a touch of Anita Brookner and Alice Hoffman. Her language is palpably visual; she takes the reader right there with her characters.

Anita Shreve, consummate historical novelist, has her own capacity for enthralling the reader and "Fortune's Rocks" (Little, Brown, 464 pages, $24.95) engages totally. Don't be fooled by the potboiler tone of the jacket copy, the romantic styling of the cover or the fact that Shreve's last book was an Oprah pick --this is a serious literary novel of the"caliber and craft of Edith Wharton or Henry James.

In 1899, Olympia Biddeford has all the self-assurance attendant to immense privilege, even at 15. Summering with her Boston family in Fortune's Rocks, on the coast of New Hampshire, she becomes perilously drawn to her father's friend, Dr. John Haskell, a doctor and thinker devoted to helping the poverty-stricken, who's married with several children. On Midsummer's Eve the attraction leads to consummation, the subsequent affair to appalling tragedy.

Not your run-of-the-mill older-man-seduces-young-girl tripe, "Fortune's Rocks" has real depth. Subtly limning the nuanced emotions of first love and intense attraction, Shreve presents both Olympia and Haskell as compelling people of integrity riven by conflict. Of course, the truth will out as we know it must, yet when it does the force of the revelation stuns. Shreve's ability to build dramatic tension and her refusal to descend into maudlin cliche even as Olympia bears her lover's child and numerous lives are shattered is remarkable.

Anita Desal has been writing books for longer than most of us have been alive, charting the territory of social interactions and cultural differences. In "Fasting, Feasting" (Mariner/ Houghton-Mifflin, 240 pages, $13), a finalist for England's Booker Prize in 1999, she uses food -- or better, sustenance -- as her metaphor for the disparate lives of a sister and brother in a middle-class Indian family. Uma, the eldest daughter doomed by poor scholarship, plainness and her parents' failure to marry her off, gets consigned to the miserable shadow role of servant to her aging parents where she is offered nothing beyond endless (and petty) demands.

Conversely, Arun, the youngest child and only son, finds his life sacrificed to endless study that eventually leads him far from home to the University of Massachusetts. A summer spent with an American family, the Pattons, reveals clear similarities between Indian and American families -- only the style of dysfunction differs.

"Fasting, Feasting" draws parallels between the rituals of food and the comfort they represent. Vegetarian Arun finds his host family's love of meat replicates his own father's, who views vegetarianism as backward and uncultured. Uma has never learned to cook, only to take orders and bring trays to and from the kitchen. Mrs. Patton arranges her own life through obsessive grocery shopping. The Pattons' son overexercises because his father wants him to play football; the younger daughter spirals into full-blown bulimia while being utterly ignored. And so on.

One comes to any book by Nicholas Christopher with a certain trepidation: What will he be up to this time? The author of the dazzling sexual fantasy "Veronica" takes a darker turn in "A Trip to the Stars" (Daft Press, 500 pages, $24.95), a gripping novel of loss, identity and reclamation.

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