Immigrant on the edge

creeping corruption

murder and misfits

New Fiction

September 19, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Harbor, by Lorraine Adams. Knopf. 308 pages. $23.95.

This elegiac debut novel about immigration - legal and illegal - by Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post reporter Adams poses questions central to the way we live now: What defines terrorism and who decides on the definition? Aziz Arkoun, a 24-year-old deserter, flees Algeria huddled in the poisonous hold of a tanker bound for Boston. He swims ashore and, crazed with cold and gravely injured, is befriended by an Egyptian immigrant and his wife. When his nationality is revealed, however - Algeria known even to the Arab world as a web of terrorists - he must leave their kind ministrations. Aziz seeks out Rafik, a ne'er-do-well from his former village, who has established himself (sans green card) with an American girlfriend and work that Aziz intuits from the outset is illegal. Rafik's shadowy exploits set in motion events that threaten Aziz's new life in America, reveal the terrible secrets he has brought with him and make the reader question all we have come to know about him. Adams' deeply introspective and tantalizingly beautiful narrative proffers no rosy immigrant tale: the realities are harsh - fear of deportation stalks each illegal while predatory landlords, employers and lawyers take advantage of their dire straits and unfamiliarity with English. Yet despite these perils, America remains the only place each wants to be. Intense and disturbing, Harbor is one of the best new novels of the year.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G. Vassanji. Knopf. 373 pages. $25.

Lall, Kenya-born son of Indian immigrants, writes his memoirs of growing up in rural Kenya, an in-between (neither black nor white), potential prey of the Mau Mau freedom fighters who have massacred two of his white friends and their parents as the nation struggles for independence from England in the year of Elizabeth II's coronation. The killings cause Lall's family to move to Nairobi where, years later, Lall is reunited with his childhood friend Njoroge, assistant to a government minister and lover to his sister, Deepa. The idealistic Njoroge finds Lall a governmental sinecure, through which Lall, accepting bribes and graft, is propelled to the top of the Kenyan government. Throughout his time in Kenya, Lall, immersed in the violence and political upheaval of the times, becomes complicit in the worst aspects of the chaotic changes. Yet despite his moral bankruptcy, Lall is an engaging, even charming, narrator; the reader is made acutely aware of how a man of principles can erode into a monster. Vassanji, winner of Canada's 2003 Giller Prize, has crafted a riveting story of moral corruption and a sharply insightful study of post-colonial racism.

Shade, by Neil Jordan. Bloomsbury. 320 pages. $24.95

In his starkly evocative novel of classism, deceits, unrequited love and grisly murder, Jordan, well-known for his Oscar-winning film, The Crying Game, here employs equally dynamic storytelling. Nina Hardy, an actress, tells the tale of her murder at the novel's opening: George, a childhood friend turned gardener, kills her viciously with a pair of shears, then dumps her body - not in the glorious river that flows beyond her estate, but down the septic tank - leaving a frosting of blood along the garden's greenery. It's a fabulous prologue, rich enough to taste, and Jordan maintains the same vivid narration throughout as Nina, the title's ghost, tells her tale, inextricably interwoven with the lives of George, his sister Janie and her own half-brother Gregory. The murder occurs in 1950 and - as the story weaves its oft-times lurid, historical track back and forth between the end of the 19th century and the mid-20th, through wars and social changes - the reason for the murder is finally revealed. A dreamy, sensuous and deeply engaging tale worthy of the best Irish fiction.

The Curse of the Appropriate Man, by Lynn Freed. Harcourt. 192 pages. $13.

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