Gothic, obsessive, outcast, brutal

Novels of April

April 11, 2004|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Success came early to Kaye Gibbons, whose celebrated first novel -- Ellen Foster -- came out when the author was only 26. That was almost 20 years ago, but Gibbons is still going strong, and her latest novel -- her seventh -- is one of her best.

Divining Women (Putnam, 224 pages, $24.95) is told by young Mary Oliver, an aspiring teacher in Washington, D.C., whose career is put on hold during the First World War. She takes a break and goes to North Carolina to help her Aunt Maureen, who is in the last weeks of a difficult pregnancy. As Mary soon discovers, what is really troubling Maureen is not the baby she's expecting but its tyrannical father. Uncle Troop is a merciless bully whose subtle cruelties are gradually destroying his wife's beauty and spirit.

The tale has many of the elements of the Southern Gothic -- including a dark mansion full of secrets and desires -- but Mary's narrative is cool and poetic, and her forceful character refuses to surrender to fear. She confronts what her aunt prefers to ignore and protects her from the corrosive effects of a marriage bordering on a nightmare. The result is a Poe romance derailed by a strong female with wit and insight.

On almost every page, Kaye Gibbons enlivens her story with surprising turns of phrase, striking images and sharp observations. In the manically correct Uncle Troop, she has created an unforgettable villain, vividly drawing out his character in language that is fresh and arresting. Commenting on his taste for clothes that are excessively formal and dull, she writes that he resembled "an absurd butler in a costume drama who goes about in his late master's suits." Of his crimes against his wife, she writes that he was guilty of a "thievery of spirit."

A book this good comes along very rarely and will surely attract more readers to a writer who just keeps getting better.

Camille Laurens is a new name on the American literary scene, but she is hot stuff in France -- both artistically and sexually. Her In His Arms (Random House, 256 pages, $22.95) is a prize-winning French best seller by an author with eight books to her credit. For years, she toiled in relative obscurity as a writer -- supporting herself by working as a librarian -- but all that changed with In His Arms, which is stylish and sensual and occasionally steamy.

It's one woman's story of her obsession with men. As the narrator says on more than one occasion, she doesn't have a type, but is wild about men of all sizes and shapes. As long as they show an interest in her, she is more than happy to reciprocate.

In her imagination, every sexual encounter is uncharted territory, and she can't wait to explore and be explored. The novel is a cartography of her sex life, and the boundaries are always shifting as she darts from one passionate encounter to the next. It's fun to read because she revels in the fact that her quest is both absurd and enchanting. She can't help herself and isn't ashamed to admit it.

In the end, what she craves from men is not so much sex but attention. "The Bible uses the verb 'to know' to mean 'to make love' and that says it all: I love men who want to know me."

If lustful musings in a novel by a French librarian aren't exotic enough for you, try Jeff Talarigo's The Pearl Diver (Nan Talese, 256 pages, $18.95) It tells the story of a 19-year-old woman whose almost idyllic life as a pearl diver in Japan comes to an abrupt halt when she is diagnosed with leprosy. Sent to a leper colony, she must learn to cope not only with the horrific effects of her disease, but also with her exile to a remote island.

An American living in Japan, Talarigo has a wonderfully evocative way of describing even the most unpleasant images in the leper colony. He is so much in love with his foreign landscape that everything looks magical through his lens. Which is why his seemingly sad tale isn't dreary or depressing. In fact, it has a luminous quality that eventually makes living among outcasts seem more rewarding than diving for pearls.

There is no effort to transform or even to soften the brutality of life in Nuruddin Farah's Links (Riverhead, 352 pages, $24.95) It is set in the author's native land of Somalia and is unsparing in its portrait of a land overwhelmed by poverty, war and corruption. Farah sees the ruined urban landscape of Somalia's capital city as a modern Inferno that would test even Dante's powers of description.

The story is a complicated one that involves a kidnapping and a dangerous confrontation with bloodthirsty warlords, and though it all rings true, it isn't easy to follow. The plot meanders like the streets in the city's slums, but Farah's hero -- an ex-patriot professor who returns to Somalia in an effort to find some hope in a land of despair -- is an admirable figure worth rooting for. He is the kind of person the country needs if its future is to be salvaged, and his fate is linked in fascinating ways to that of his country.

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