Tombs, Berlin, sales, drama, a hero

Novels Of October

October 14, 2001|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Literary goldmines can be found in the strangest places. Two years ago, Tracy Chevalier, a young American living in London, brought out a novel about a humble maid in the service of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. A short, lyrical exploration of the painter's 17th-century world, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the sort of "literary mid-list title" that usually sells a few thousand copies and quickly sinks from view. Yet such is the popularity of Chevalier's novel that it's spent many months on the bestseller lists and is still in great demand.

Part of the secret of Chevalier's success is her uncanny ability to bring a lost world to life. In her latest novel, Falling Angels (Dutton, 324 pages, $24.95) she turns her keen eye for detail on Edwardian England and spins a complex tale of the relationship between two families in London. Through the use of several narrative voices she examines the sexual and political tensions that haunted so many seemingly respectable families of the period. Her characters long to be proper members of an old-fashioned society, but they can't resist the new promises of the emerging modern world, including equal rights for women and freedom from class divisions.

Overshadowing this pursuit of new opportunities are various Victorian rituals and beliefs that won't go away. For Chevalier, the most fascinating holdover from the Victorian period is its obsession with death. As her two families struggle to make new lives in the 20th century, they must also work to free themselves from the dead hand of the past, which is brilliantly evoked in the novel by frequent references to the elaborate funerals and burial plots so prized by earlier generations. Just as Vermeer's work helps to explain his world in Chevalier's earlier novel, so the symbolic art of the graveyard beautifully illuminates Victorian culture in Falling Angels.

Like many other writers, Joseph Kanon has found literary gold in the rich subject of the Second World War. In the espionage that swirled around the end of the war he's found a topic that's not yet been overworked. His first novel, Los Alamos, was a highly successful thriller set in 1945 during the last frantic days of the Manhattan Project. Now, in The Good German (Henry Holt, 482 pages, $26), he's returned to 1945 and found another fascinating story. This time it's a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the ruins of Occupied Germany.

Kanon's hero is a postwar journalist who's supposed to be covering the Postdam Conference, but who becomes involved instead in the corrupt world of Berlin's black market. Both a thriller and a love story, the novel owes a lot to Graham Greene's The Third Man, but Kanon isn't interested in psychological or literary complexity. He just wants to tell a good story with few frills and many well-paced surprises. And, indeed, The Good German is the kind of book that reads so easily that it's almost impossible to put down once you've started it. Berlin is expertly described and the atmosphere of lingering evil is powerfully conveyed.

It's a safe bet that Etgar Keret's quirky collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories (Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's, 182 pages, $19.95), will not be one of this season's big commercial successes. Its short tales deal with such odd subjects as a child's decision to treat a piggy bank as a pet, a woman's plan to display her uterus at a museum and a suicide victim's effort to cope with an afterlife at a pizza parlor in hell. But Keret, a young Israeli writer, deserves attention because he's funny and wildly inventive. If you have a desire to indulge your taste for dark humor, you can't beat this book, which finds com-edy in such unpromising subjects as plagues, cancer and contract killings.

The bizarre underside of contemporary life in the Midwest is the focus of Gary Sernovitz's Great American Plain (Henry Holt, 228 pages, $23). It's a sweet tale of an earnest young man who thinks he's found the key to success in an old manual of sales techniques. The hero, Edward Steinke, regards the manual as a holy object and uses the sales concept of the "Perfect Execution" to unload piano organs on unsuspecting consumers at the State Fair. But love for a young convenience store clerk interferes with his ambitions and leads to adventures that are both comic and enlightening. From beginning to end, Sernovitz's story is a joy to read.

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