Struggles of spirit and fesh

painter, critic in dangerous tussle

a very human Holmes

New Fiction

April 17, 2005|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

The Mermaid Chair

By Sue Monk Kidd. Viking. 335 pages. $24.95.

In her best-selling first novel --The Secret Life of Bees -- Sue Monk Kidd created an unusual recipe for success. She took the old-fashioned grotesqueries of Southern fiction and softened the gloom with folksy New Age mysticism. The result was a book that quickly surpassed its regional appeal and sold more than 3 million copies.

Her second novel adds some new ingredients to the recipe -- a little spice in the form of mid-life randiness, a little sauce in the form of martyrdom fantasies. The mixture is a potent one that can be overwhelming at times -- too sweet one moment, too sour the next. But what saves The Mermaid Chair from the curse of the second-novel blues is its warmhearted, resilient heroine, whose voice sounds so real and compelling that you can easily shrug off her occasional New Age banalities or the improbable Gothic twists of her story.

Though Jessie Sullivan is in her early 40s, she tends to look at the world through the eyes of a younger self, searching for love and happiness with all the energy -- and some of the innocence -- of an adolescent girl. Called home to care for her troubled mother, she leaves a dull husband behind and returns to the tiny island where she grew up -- a dark yet magical place off the coast of South Carolina. There, she uncovers a shocking secret about her dead father, spars with her difficult mother, and falls in love with handsome Brother Thomas at the local monastery, who can't decide whether he wants to reach ecstasy in the spirit or the flesh.

And that is where the mermaid enters the story. In one sense, the mythical sea creature is represented by Jessie, who is transformed by her island life into the free-spirited seductress of doubting Brother Thomas. But it's also represented in the monastery by an ancient chair that is adorned with the carved figure of a mermaid and dedicated to a saint. A tribute to physical beauty and religious sanctity, the chair represents everything Jessie and Thomas desire: a rich and full life that is both sacred and profane.

The Portrait

By Iain Pears. Riverhead Books. 224 pages. $19.95.

In 1998, Iain Pears created a literary sensation with his historical thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost, which was widely praised for the baroque complexity of its murder mystery. Its scope was epic, but in his new novel, he is content to confine himself to a small canvas, allowing one voice to give a seemingly straightforward account of a bitter professional rivalry between a famous art critic and a failed painter.

The appeal of this short novel lies in the intensity of its narrator's growing sense of injustice as he recounts all the indignities that he has suffered over the years from a cruel critic whom he once considered a friend. He wants revenge now, but he wants it to come slowly. A meeting is arranged on a small, wind-swept island, and the suspense becomes almost unbearable as the frustrated artist plots to crush his adversary.

As it turns out, the artist is not as innocent as he seems and has a cruel streak of his own. The traps he sets for the critic are also traps for the reader; by the end of the novel, the boundaries between art and life are crossed in ways that are weirdly haunting. It's not as good as Pears' earlier work, but The Portrait is fascinating and worthy all the same.

A Slight Trick of the Mind

By Mitch Cullin. Nan A. Talese / Doubleday. 272 pages. $23.95.

Prolific author Mitch Cullin has had the clever idea of spinning a mystery around a long-retired Sherlock Holmes, who is 93 when this novel opens in 1947 and is still fascinated by crime. It's different from the rather cheap gimmickry in some of the old Basil Rathbone film versions of the Holmes stories, where the great detective was lifted out of his native late-Victorian gaslight and given new life under the neon glow of the 1940s to do battle with Nazis and gun-toting gangsters. What Cullin is after is something more profound -- an exploration of a brilliant mind at the end of a long life.

Cullin's Holmes is very human, with lingering regrets and unsatisfied yearnings. He knows his mind is losing its legendary powers, and he struggles to keep active on his Sussex farm, attended by his housekeeper and her young son. He is like a father to the boy and passes on to him some of his knowledge and experience. But for the most part he lives in his mind, and in that vast realm the game is still afoot as old cases are revisited and given substance before his memories of them fade forever.

The Year of Pleasures

By Elizabeth Berg. Random House. 240 pages. $24.95.

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