Arctic paradise, mordant wit, Irish troubles

December fiction

December 28, 2003|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,Special to the Sun

In Ben Jones' mesmermizing debut novel, The Rope Eater (Doubleday, 304 pages, $24), Brendan Kane, a Union Army deserter, returns North after the Civil War and signs onto a two-year stint as a ship's mate on the Narthex, bound for the Arctic. The crew, a cadre of second-rate sailors, paroled prisoners and other misfits, does not initially know its destination. Far from civilization, they are informed that the trip, led by the enigmatic Mr. West and scientist-in-residence Dr. Architeuthis, seeks to search out a tropical paradise in the heart of the Arctic ice.

Under Dr. Architeuthis's tutelage, Kane learns to perform various navigational tasks. As the voyage continues through snow and ice, the crew are forced out onto the frozen wasteland much like Shackleton's band. The mettle of each is tested and Kane discovers his true self.

The horrifying metaphor of the rope eater runs through the novel: an African contortionist raised from birth to eat a continuous piece of thread, then string, then rope. The rope-eater story is told by the mysterious three-handed Aziz, the boiler-stoker.

As the novel evolves, the meaning of Aziz's tale is revealed. A heady mix of Melville's Moby Dick and Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, The Rope Eater melds breathtaking lyricism with gripping realism, producing a page-turning adventure that navigates that heart of darkness hidden within men's souls.

Lara Vapnyar emigrated from Russia a decade ago, making her fine debut collection of short fiction, There Are Jews in My House (Pantheon, 160 pages, $17.95), all the more astonishing; she wrote it in English -- learned from watching TV and reading Jane Austen.

The beautifully wrought tales in this sumptuous little collection are set in Russia and Russian neighborhoods in New York. The title story is compelling, provocative and almost unbearably painful: A Russian woman hides her best friend and her daughter when Nazis occupy their small town.

Vapnyar's layered telling reveals complexities -- jealousies, resentments, love, courage, betrayal. "Mistress" finds a 9-year-old emigre torn between his grandparents as he comes to realize his grandfather is learning more than English at his night classes while his domineering grandmother complains of her ailments and overcooks everything.

The rest of this nuanced and deftly written collection is equally good, the characters deeply human and thus flawed and fragile individuals enmeshed by dire or simply painful circumstances. Superb.

Jane Gardam has twice won England's prestigious Whit-bread Prize, and it's not surprising. Her latest and utterly delightful novel, Faith Fox (Carroll & Graf, 312 pages, $25) codifies the "it takes a village" theory of child-rearing, with decidedly mordant British wit.

Baby Faith, alas, has killed her exuberant mother in childbirth and her physician father "disliked children altogether, really."

Faith's maternal grandmother can't bear to look at the child and so the baby is left finally in the care of her paternal uncle, a rather odd minister; his wife, an Indian ex-hippie; and her son. Others come to Faith's aid as well, each more eccentric than the next, and Gardam's tale twists and turns with charming deftness until the big surprise at the end. A smart, funny and deeply moving novel. A touch of the miraculous makes it prime holiday reading.

In Patrick McCabe's marvelous new novel, Call Me the Breeze (HarperCollins, 352 pages, $24.95), Joey Tallon embarks on a voyage of self-discovery in 1976 in a small Republic of Ireland town bordering on Northern Ireland.

The height of the notorious Troubles finds Tallon driving his friend's band home from a gig in Northern Ireland only to have a bomb explode inside the vehicle, maiming the friend. Later, Tallon witnesses the gruesome assassination of a police detective. Then he kidnaps Jacy, an American girl, in a Taxi Driver-like attempt to prove his worth to her. Finally, Tallon goes to jail.

Fast-forward 25 years, where upon his release from prison, Tallon decides to become a writer. His autobiography is accepted for publication by a London publisher -- as a novel. Now Tallon must write a second novel, also drawing from his own life.

Tallon's bumbling antics provide ribald hilarity in this sharp, darkly comedic tale mitigated only by the somber shadow of the Troubles, and the specters of all those now dead whom Tallon once knew. Vintage McCabe.

Max Byrd's historical novel, Shooting the Sun (Bantam, 320 pages, $23.95) presents English inventor Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Byron Lovelace, progenitors of the modern computer, planning an expedition to the American West to photograph a complete solar eclipse.

Babbage's Difference Engine has calculated the date and location of the eclipse and sends his partner, Henshaw Pryce, to the United States to organize the expedition.

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