Lobsters, glamour, epistles, insanity

Novels Of May

May 28, 2000|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Elizabeth Gilbert's first novel takes on a humble subject in an understated style; its modest brilliance sneaks up, though the story will probably hook you on page one. Affectionately true to its characters' nutty integrity, "Stern Men" (Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $24) tracks the reluctant evolution of an old island lobstering community from its time-honored brand of brutal individualism to kinder, gentler ways of doing business.

The catalyst of change is Ruth Thomas, a daughter of the island just back from boarding school on the mainland, looking for a purposeful life to live on Fort Niles. Ruth, "who often looked as if she was about to smack the next person who came around the corner," is an inspired creation. But the true star of the novel is the island community itself: its history and customs, characters and character.

There's a plain-spoken charm to the way Gilbert narrates the lobster wars between Fort Niles and the neighboring island and other signal events in this history. Especially delicious is her dialogue: " 'I hate this goddamn dog,' Angus said. 'And the fact that I have to feed it corrodes my soul.' " Gilbert's respect for her characters ensures that, while hilarious, they are never cartoonish.

Wise, funny, and wonderful, "Stern Men" takes the mute, inscrutable lobster as its animating spirit, leading each chapter with a reflection on the clawed creature's strange ways. Like lobster, like lobsterer, these epigraphs slyly suggest. That such a comparison amplifies rather than simplifies her characters' humanity is one good measure of this novelist's unassuming artistry.

"The Deep Field" (Holt, 346 pages, $26) is another early effort by a young novelist, the Australian James Bradley. His award-winning first novel, "Wrack," garnered comparisons to Salman Rushdie for its intellectual bent and elliptical prose style. Bradley aims for the hypnotic in his writing and sometimes succeeds at the expense of lucidity and focus.

The shaggy plot concerns a brilliant and beautiful photographer falling in love with a brilliant and blind paleontologist while she seeks her brilliant and beautiful missing twin brother. The novel starts out taking for granted the reader's interest in its extra-glamorous characters, as if their glamour is enough to clinch it.

What does keep up interest early is Bradley's piquant vision of a hyper-technologized but discordant near future. The characters live amid an unceasing stream of "information pulsing and flowing through the satellite networks, permeating the air as the datapackets rode microwaves to mobile receptors, whispering along the twisting, glassy capillaries of fibre-optic cable as they branched and spread like the runners of a vine across the continents." This backdrop is as scary as it is stimulating and sleekly beautiful.

In the end, "The Deep Field" just holds together. Its final sections finally do infect the reader with feeling for its characters. But getting that far takes a commitment to mushing through early atmospherics and posturing. The novel eventually does pay off readers who can stick with it. Those without the patience can look forward to the future novels Bradley will certainly turn out. If those are a bit more disciplined, they will be very much worth reading.

Thomas Sanchez's fourth novel, "The Day of the Bees," (Knopf, 320 pages , $24) follows the fashion of A.S. Byatt's "Possession"; it employs the conceit of a scholar-narrator who has stumbled on the secret letters of his subject. In "The Day of the Bees," the letters belong to the fictional painter Francisco Zermano and his mistress-model, Louise Collard.

Their letters are written after Hitler's occupation of France has separated the lovers forever. Zermano and Louise recount for each other the ribald details of their passionate past, and Louise reports the grisly details of her life alone under occupation. "The black crows in the barren fields don't even croak as I pass by," she writes from deceptively sleepy Provence. "They know I can cook up a plastique bomb faster than I can make an omelette."

As we read Louise's letters over the narrator's shoulder, the dark secrets tumble forth into an untidy heap. What began as a robust love story becomes nothing less than a confrontation between good and evil. Sanchez serves up high romance and unabashed melodrama, not for the faint of heart. And not for the overly skeptical. "Day of the Bees" is an original; it endorses the notion of undying love as uncynically as a pulp romance, but with a world more learning and eloquence.

"Veronika Decides to Die" (HarperCollins, 224 pages, $24) is about two parts parable, one part novel. Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho's slim, didactic work of fiction tells how a young woman's death wish gets transformed by unlikely means into a life force.

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