Tibet, mushrooms, Lincoln, a whine

Novels of February

February 09, 2003|By Donna Rifkind | By Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

Nothing satisfies like a good old-fashioned adventure story, and Jonathan Falla's first novel, Blue Poppies (Delta, 2240 pages, $11.95 softbound), is a model of the genre. Set in 1950 on the eve of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the story follows Jamie Wilson, a young Scotsman who is hired to establish a radio outpost in a remote Himalayan village called Jyeko. Captivated by the majestic landscape and its hardy inhabitants, Jamie falls in love with a beautiful, crippled widow named Puton who has been shunned by the villagers because they believe her deformity will bring bad luck.

It's not long before bad luck does indeed arrive, in the form of the Communist Chinese soldiers who come to "liberate" the proudly independent Tibetans. After several murderous clashes, Jamie and the villagers escape just before the invading soldiers set the town aflame.

The outcast Puton and a small group of monks are left behind, only to be forced to accompany the Chinese soldiers as they play an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with the fleeing villagers through icebound mountain passes. Falla creates some exquisite suspense here, while managing to avoid either sentimentalizing the doomed Tibetans or demonizing the occupying Chinese. All the characters display a mix of good and bad impulses, while the many descriptions of the towering snow-capes are dazzling. Coolly and confidently written, this is adventure fiction at its most bracing.

Born in London in 1980, the alarmingly young author Sophie Powell makes an impressive debut this month with The Mushroom Man (Putnam, 208 pages, $23.95). Charlotte and Beth are sisters who have nothing in common and haven't spoken regularly in years. Uptight Charlotte lives in a posh London neighborhood with her philandering husband and over-scheduled 6-year-old daughter, Lily, while free-spirited Beth makes her home in the untidy Welsh countryside, raising 11-year-old triplet girls and a 16-year-old son.

When Charlotte and Lily reluctantly come to visit Beth's family, the triplets enchant their young cousin with a story about a "mushroom man" who lives in the nearby forest and makes mushroom umbrellas to protect fairies from the rain. To Charlotte's horror, Lily impulsively disappears into the forest to look for the mythical creatures.

While the panicked adults conduct an all-night search for the lost girl, the triplets handle the matter in their own way, enlisting the neighborhood children to help beg the fairies to deliver Lily safely home. These are wonderfully believable characters, from the touchingly silly triplets to the fractious grownups. Powell's novel has the comprehensiveness of a long, perfect short story: organic and harmonious, with no false moves.

Speaking of short stories, Alabaman writer Michael Knight knows a thing or two about that elusive genre. Author of the acclaimed 1998 collection Dogfight, Knight proves in his latest volume, Goodnight, Nobody (Grove / Atlantic, 192 pages, $23), that he is, as Frederick Barthelme once called him, "a genius of the ordinary."

Among the best examples here is "Birdland," a sweetly effective love story about a beautiful ornithologist and her mildly depressed boyfriend in the quirky town of Elbow, Ala. Also wonderful are "Mitchell's Girls," in which a beleaguered father contemplates his life's humiliations as he lies on the floor after injuring his back; and "Ellen's Book," an examination of a disastrously failing marriage that also manages to be a witty commentary on writing fiction.

Adam Braver's ambitious first book, which calls itself "A Novel in Thirteen Stories," asks whether it is possible to re-imagine the world of Abraham Lincoln in contemporary terms. Mr. Lincoln's Wars (William Morrow, 320 pages, $23.95) shows us the 16th president from many perspectives, including that of the undertaker who prepared both Lincoln's body and his 12-year-old son's for burial; of Mary Todd Lincoln, deranged by grief; of John Wilkes Booth, unhinged by egotism and hatred; of fathers mourning their dead soldiers and sons; and of sons haunted by abusive fathers.

There are a number of views of Lincoln himself, including an episode from his young manhood where he walks away forever from his own abusive father and their Indiana farm. Braver uses a profoundly modern sensibility in these vignettes -- intimate, psychologically astute -- to coax Lincoln's many public and private wars closer to our own era. The overall effect, while occasionally jarring, is fresh and inventive.

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