Lyricism, shock, verve -- and glossing Mata Hari

Novels Of March

March 03, 2002|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

In her extraordinarily beautiful, complex and rawly emotional debut novel, This Place Called Absence (Kensington, 218 pages, $23), Lydia Kwa traverses paths upon which tragedy and loss can take one through the voices of four women. The novel's central character, Wu Lan, is a 41-year-old psychologist and emigre to Vancouver from Singapore. Her mother, Mahmee, a world away, laments the recent suicide of her husband and the equally incomprehensible loss of the daughter who has chosen lesbianism and North America over the subservience of Asian heterosexual tradition. Forced by spiraling depression to take a leave of absence from her job, Wu Lan embarks on a path her father followed in the months before his death, seeking answers in obscure tracts and journals.

Examination of these volumes leads Wu Lan to discover the lives of two young 19th-century Chinese women, Lee Ah Choi and Chow Chat Mui, one sold into sexual slavery by her family, the other a runaway. Their only means for survival in the brutal brothel in which they live is their clandestine love affair.

These disquieting and compelling narratives detail each woman's quest for a touchstone of emotional and physical survival and reveal Kwa's acuity as a novelist. Each voice wholly distinct, each backstory deftly crafted, the prose itself seamless, This Place Called Absence is a novel of harrowing lyricism.

David Davidar, publisher of Penguin Books India, knows well the territory of his debut novel, The House of Blue Mangoes (HarperCollins, 421 pages, $26.95). With epic sweep he traces three generations of the Dorai family in a small village in the south of India. Wealthy landowner Solomon Dorai witnesses his village ravaged by caste issues stoked when the British raj builds a paved road through the village.

His eldest son, Dr. Daniel Dorai, developer of a popular skin-lightening cream, sees his younger brother jailed and tortured for anti-British activism. Daniel tries to keep the village from falling into political turmoil as the movement to free India from British rule radiates to his rural sector. As India prepares for partition and eventual independence, Daniel's son, Keenan, finds himself torn between his Indian heritage and his friendship with the local British.

Davidar's lush prose evokes the feeling of the Dorais' village, with its choking dust and thick vegetation; his careful ear deciphers the disdainful pronunciation of the English, using language as yet another means to subjugate. House of Blue Mangoes also juxtaposes Christianity and Hinduism and how each religion holds its own prejudices. The Dorais are Christian converts but have not fully divested themselves of Hindu practices; many lower-caste Hindus converted to escape caste confinements only to find themselves relegated to segregated pews in church.

House of Blue Mangoes is a solid, well-written first novel. Davidar is no Salman Rushdie, but doesn't have to be; he tells a fine, true, accurate tale with vividness and verve.

Leaving (St. Martin's, 452 pages, $24.95), Richard Dry's first novel, also explores three generations of the same family. A pregnant Ruby Washington and her half-brother Easton take a bus from rural South Carolina to urban Oakland in 1959, a year pivotal in the burgeoning civil rights movement. There the two find a world apart from the Jim Crow-focused one they left. In Oakland the civil rights movement rages -- African-Americans own their businesses, hold pride of place in their neighborhoods. But with time and the slowness of success for blacks, urban enrichment deteriorates into urban decay.

Dry tracks Ruby, her daughter Lida and Lida's sons Love and L'il Pit in a chaotic, fragmented style meant evoke the turbulence in which the family lives. In the hands of a lesser writer, this style would detract from the tale but Dry uses it deftly, combining it with the dialects his characters speak. The effect is rich and fluid.

Starkly poetic, raw and intensely moving, Leaving proffers not just a report on African- American lives, but an indictment of urban life in the U.S., a world in which people steal from their own families and those families live in a diaspora, scattered geographically as well as emotionally. Leaving shocks and compels. Not for black readers only.

Was she a spy, dancer, flirt or merely hungry for love? Journalist Richard Skinner tantalizes with his debut novel, The Red Dancer: The Life and Times of Mata Hari (Ecco / HarperCollins, 263 pages, $24.95), but never answers fully.

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