Spooks, details, guilt, philosophy

Novels of April

April 14, 2002|By Michael Shelden | By Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

The best novel of the month is Howard Norman's The Haunting of L. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 326 pages, $24), a spine-tingling tale of illicit passions and macabre obsessions. It begins brilliantly in the snow-covered wilderness of Manitoba, where young Peter Duvett keeps busy as an assistant to a deranged photographer, and as the lover of his employer's wife.

The two paths of love and work become inseparable as Peter discovers that he cannot have one without the other. His lover is devoted to him, but is also mesmerized by her husband's strange specialty as a photographer. He produces "spirit pictures" that purport to reveal the souls arising from the dead and attending the ceremonies of the living.

With great subtlety and polish, Howard Norman creates a fictional world in which humans are haunted at every turn by their own spirits as well as by those of the dead. Everything operates on two levels -- the seen and the unseen -- so that the novel becomes itself a literary equivalent of the "spirit picture." In its intensity, the haunting atmosphere of this tale is both thrilling and horrifying. Above all, it is unforgettable.

Sometimes the atmosphere of a novel is almost as important as its plot. Such is the case with Katherine Mosby's wonderfully evocative The Season of Lillian Dawes (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $24.95), which is set in Manhattan during the early 1950s. With stunning ease, Mosby brings back the sights, sounds, and smells of the period, from the trailing smoke of an Old Gold cigarette to the passing reflections in the plate-glass window of a Chock full o'Nuts.

Her literary talents are similar to those of an Old Dutch master. She has an acute eye for revealing details and memorable scenes. A hi-fi plays Ella Fitzgerald in the cramped confines of a damp apartment; a society matron comes to lunch wearing a fur coat with a fox head on the collar; and a wintry gloom invades Central Park: "Naked trees and muddy paths and a string of empty park benches, weathering."

The lyrical nostalgia of this novel is so effortless and seductive that the reader may well forgive Mosby for serving up a meager plot about two brothers loving the same woman -- the elusive Lillian of the title. It is a familiar tale -- with only one unexpected twist -- but the pleasure of spending time in a lost world of penny loafers and cherry pipe tobacco more than compensates for the routine narrative.

Manhattan also features prominently in Ann Packer's debut novel The Dive from Clausen's Pier (Knopf, 356 pages, $24), but her focus is less on scenery and more on plot. Driven by an intricate moral dilemma, her story is fresh, contemporary, and fast-paced. It features a young woman with a promising future whose choices in life are suddenly complicated by her boyfriend's tragic diving accident.

New York provides the heroine with an exciting escape from her provincial town, but a cloud of guilt hangs over her. She has left behind the quadriplegic boyfriend who expected to marry her. Will she go back home to help him? Or make a new life for herself in a city of endless possibilities? Packer's sensitive treatment of these questions makes the novel a powerful and compelling read. Not incidentally, it also seems to cry out for an endorsement from Oprah.

Jim Grimsley's Boulevard (Algonquin, 304 pages, $23.95) gains much of its power from its setting in New Orleans. The time is 1978 and an innocent young man named Newell arrives in the big city looking for sexual adventure. He finds more than he bargained for. Taking a job at a pornographic bookstore, he soon meets a transsexual named Miss Sophia, a sadist named scary Jack, and a graduate student with a fascination for serial killers.

Grimsley's dark novel is rough and unsavory, but beautifully written. Like the knife employed in one of the book's sexual games, the author's prose is razor-sharp and dazzling.

A thoroughly cosmopolitan atmosphere pervades Andrew Miller's Oxygen (Harcourt, 336 pages, $24), which examines the problems of fame and success among a group of characters living in France, California and England.

The most interesting of these figures is a Hungarian playwright in Paris whose literary success is overshadowed by lingering memories of suffering in the dreary Budapest of the Cold War. He sees the nightmares of the past being replayed in modern Bosnia and Serbia, and debates with himself and his friends the old questions of existential responsibility.

Philosophy and its consolations provide the real breath of life in Miller's Oxygen, and make this novel of ideas both intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving.

It recalls an earlier time when the pressures of the Cold War led to a revival of interest in philosophical questioning, and demonstrates once again that the unexamined life -- no matter how successful -- is not worth living.

For something offbeat but endearing, the best bet this month is Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection (Viking, 400 pages, $24.95). It is the story of an odd love affair between an engineer and a museum curator whose careers bring them together in a small Australian town. Middle-aged and unattractive, the couple seem to be unlikely candidates for romance, but their fight over the preservation of a small bridge gradually brings them to respect each other, and then to fall in love.

Kate Grenville is highly regarded in her native Australia and has recently won Britain's most valuable literary award, the Orange Prize. She deserves more attention in America, and this new novel -- her fifth -- is a great introduction to her delightfully eccentric brand of romantic fiction.

Michael Shelden is the author of biographies of George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, The Washington Post and others.

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