Salt, loot, family, navigation, court

April Fiction

April 20, 2003|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

The award for this month's most dazzling literary feat goes to Monique Truong, a Vietnamese-American whose first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 261 pages, $24) adds a brilliant twist to the old tales of the Lost Generation in Paris. Instead of rehashing stories of famous novelists behaving badly, Truong looks at Paris through the eyes of a young Vietnamese cook, Binh, who prepares exquisite meals for Gertrude Stein's stylish parties.

Like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Binh is a lonely exile searching for a cultural home. He is based on a real figure mentioned briefly in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. But Truong is able to take this tiny bit of factual information and turn it into a grand and magical narrative that explores a side of Paris ignored by the legends of the Lost Generation. Binh's multicultural adventures are more unconventional -- and often seamier -- than the boozy antics favored by the crowd at Harry's Bar.

A true connoisseur of the moveable feast that was Paris in the '20s and '30s and Thirties, the young cook has dreams and ambitions as great as those of the Anglo-American exiles, but he gets no recognition from them. They regard him as a mere cook from a backward colony and don't see that his exotic dishes reflect a personality of depth and richness. He is certainly more interesting than the artsy bohemian lady who employs him.

Binh is such a strange presence that he is doomed to be an outcast even among a charmed circle of outcasts. His isolation is heartrending, but he learns to live in his imagination and to take comfort from memories of better times at home in Indochina. As a poignant story of survival, and as fresh portrait of a famous time and place, The Book of Salt is a splendid triumph.

At age 80, Nadine Gordimer could easily rest on her Nobel laurels, but she is still going strong in her native South Africa and has brought out a new collection of stories, Loot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pages, $24) which is as lively and provocative as her best work. There are 10 stories, each distinguished by Gordimer's dry wit, social compassion and moral insight.

The gem of the collection is "Mission Statement," a wonderfully satiric tale of international bureaucrats who mismanage assistance to Third World countries from their comfortable offices in New York and Geneva. The heroine is an idealistic worker whose efforts to help the poor are undermined by pompous administrators with long titles and short memories. No good deed can be attempted without first explaining its purpose in a mission statement full of politically correct jargon that glosses over local difficulties "often unimaginable in New York / Geneva."

In Family History (Knopf, 269 pages, $23), Dani Shapiro writes convincingly of a modern couple who have what they consider to be the perfect marriage and the perfect child. In youth Rachel and Ned enjoy a carefree existence as budding artists in Greenwich Village. They move to a small town in New England to settle down and lead a quiet life with their beautiful young daughter, Kate. Then, with terrifying suddenness, everything unravels when a second child arrives and older sister Kate turns into a jealous monster at the tender age of 13.

Lies and bitter recriminations tear this seemingly ideal family apart, and their rapid decline is horrifying to watch, reflecting every parent's worst fears. Rachel loses both husband and daughter and tells her story in an effort to understand whether she failed her family or they failed her. It is a fast-paced modern drama sketched in broad strokes, and is sure to attract a large audience. Though it lacks subtlety -- the setting of this dark tale of good and evil is Hawthorne, Mass. -- it is nonetheless riveting.

Martin Corrick's The Navigation Log (Random House, 292 pages, $24.95) is an eccentric novel about Tom and William Anderson, twins who come of age in rural Britain between the wars. The main delight of the book is its loving re-creation of time and place. Corrick has an uncanny ability to enter into the life of the Thirties and to draw out details that reveal both the sweetness and the blandness of country life.

He is just as convincing when the plot takes the twins into World War II. Tom becomes a Spitfire pilot, and the descriptions of his sorties ring true. The other twin becomes a schoolteacher, and his life on the home front is equally vivid. Though the plot rambles at a pace that many readers will find slow, this is the kind of novel in which atmosphere is everything. What happens to Tom and William as they take very different paths in life is not as important as the experiences they share of a countryside whose charms are immeasurable.

Dwight Allen's Judge (Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $23.95) is a quiet novel told in flawless prose by a young writer from Louisville. It is set in Allen's hometown and features the friends and family of a local judge whose decent but unspectacular career ends just before the book begins. His wife and clerk and sons try to make sense of their relationships with the man who dominated their lives, but only the clerk seems to have understood him. Her name is Lucy, and she brings the novel to life as she explains how their devotion to each other finally led to a sexual relationship near the end of the judge's life, when he was 80. It is a wonderful twist in a story that is heartwarming in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.

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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