Ovid, Ceylon, dissent, woman priest

Novels Of April

April 01, 2001|By MICHAEL SHELDEN | MICHAEL SHELDEN,Special to the Sun

With a little help from Oprah, an unknown novelist writing about ordinary people in obscure places can easily become famous overnight. It used to be that publishers would look at a first novel about the tensions between a mother and daughter in a small town and think, "Hard sell." Now, they have more reason to be optimistic, and pray each night at the altar of St. Oprah, hoping that she will bestow her blessing on their latest fresh face, who has written a heartwarming tale of common folk doing quirky things in a backward little town.

If you're not Oprah's kind of novelist, and your name isn't Updike or Madonna, you're going to find it tough to hawk your new masterpiece unless it features: a) lots of sex and shopping; b) lots of body parts left behind by a devilishly hip serial killer; or c) lots of autobiographical confessions of wayward behavior, ranging from tax evasion to incest. Take your choice.

But if you obstinately insist on writing beautifully about a subject that is not obviously commercial, then you're going to need a lot of help from kindly reviewers who don't mind that your name isn't famous or that your book is about (for example) a Roman poet who lived in the time of Augustus and wrote love songs in exile on the Black Sea.

Though Jane Alison's first novel, "The Love-Artist" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pages, $23) is unlikely to draw many fans away from Oprah's club, it is the kind of work that deserves a large and enthusiastic following.

In language that is exquisitely direct and moving, Jane Alison tells her fictional version of the poet Ovid's mysterious banishment to the edges of the Roman Empire in the last years of Augustus' reign. She provides some intriguing explanations for the writer's failure to steer clear of his emperor's disfavor, and brings his shadowy career to life in a thoroughly convincing way.

More important, she imagines a powerful love story that sweeps this great poet of love off his feet and puts his muse at the mercy of emotions he can't entirely understand or control. He is paired with a dark beauty whose witchlike powers make her seem larger than life, and who displays the kind of transforming powers of love and magic that Ovid describes so well in his work. As he tries to weave a tale around the seductive character of this mysterious beauty, the poet finds himself ensnared by unexpected twists in the story of his life as well as in the story of his new work, only two tantalizing lines of which are discovered after his death.

Another ambitious first novel with a vivid historical setting is Edie Meidav's "The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon" (Houghton Mifflin, 582 pages, $25). This epic story takes place in the colonial days of the country that is now called Sri Lanka. It is essentially a drama of West meeting East, but not from the usual focal point of British imperial masters struggling to understand their exotic colonial peoples. The difference here is that Edie Meidav's hero is an eccentric New Yorker who comes to Ceylon in 1936 searching for spiritual enlightenment.

What her hero - Henry Gould - finds is not the romantic country of his mystical dreams, but a complex land of very real people whose own desires and aspirations are often as common as those in the swarming New York streets that Gould has left behind. By slow degrees, he undergoes a painful transformation, shedding some of his Western arrogance and opening his eyes to a world that was initially beyond his powers of imagination. His story is fascinating, and Edie Meidav tells it with great skill and compassion.

Mary Lee Settle's "I, Roger Williams" (Norton, 320 pages, $24.95) is an example of the historical novel at its best. The winner of a National Book Award, Settle has written two previous novels and her experience shows in the quiet, confident way that she spins her dense multilayered narrative of old-world tyranny at war with the religious and political ideals of the new world.

To students of American history, the story of how Roger Williams struggled against English repression and Puritan intolerance is well known. But Settle gives it fresh treatment by so convincingly inhabiting the mind of her hero and showing her readers the world as he must have seen it. His ardent devotion to freedom helped to establish a powerful tradition of dissent in America, and this provocative novel will remind readers that all Americans are, in many ways, Roger Williams' children.

Louise Erdrich's "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse" (Harper Collins, 368 pages, $26) is the work of a veteran writer with a loyal following, and this new book will no doubt attract a great deal of attention. Set on a North Dakota reservation, it tells the story of a faithful priest who enjoys a long life of service to his community, but who is haunted by a secret that he has long feared to reveal.

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