BETWEEN COVERS

The human condition

There are rich textures to the best new fiction

June 23 1997
BETWEEN COVERS

The human condition

There are rich textures to the best new fiction

June 23 1997

The human condition

BETWEEN COVERS

EDITOR'S PICKS

There are rich textures to the best new fiction

At First I Hope for Rescue by Holley Rubinsky (Knopf, $26.95). Small towns are not boring. Ordinary people—almost all of them—have extraordinary secrets. But it takes a tough and attentive writer to fashion stories about ordinary small-town people in a way that feels totally fresh. Rubinsky, who divides her time between Toronto and Kaslo,

B.C., does just that in her impressive collection of linked stories. These are cross-pollinating tales centred around Ruth, B.C., a town as plain and practical as a Laundromat on the outside, and just as full of jumbled finery and dirty secrets on the inside. The stories are told by seven characters, a bravura range of voices that includes a 17-year-old bulimic, a guy living with two New Age women near Sedona, Ariz., and a housewife who glimpses a terrible secret in the kitchen of her best friend. There are raw moments here, but there is also a wacky sort of pluck to the way the characters talk and stagger on with their lives that feels distinctly Canadian. In a good way, of course.

When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth by Fernanda Eberstadt (Knopf, $35). Love, family relations and the vagaries of the New York City art scene are entwined in this hugely entertaining novel by American author Eberstadt. Like Tom Wolfe, she pries apart—and mocks—the pretensions of the salon set who live and breathe art. Alfred Gebier, who married into money, is middle-aged and debauched, but he loves his children, and his life. Dolly, his too-serious—or is that repressed?—wife, is a major benefactor of artists. Their precariously successful existence is shaken up when they meet Isaac Hooker—a Harvard-educated spiritual vagabond

who, at 25, is temporarily homeless, but who paints divinely. Eberstadfs characters occasionally risk being superficial symbols, but who can quibble when the narrative zips enticingly along, the pages are layered with as much detail as an Impressionist painting, and you even get to ponder whether a Mark Rothko canvas is really worth $3.5 million.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Thomas Allen, $34.95). The American master’s powerful 23rd book chronicles the life of the fictional Seymour Levov, a man whose somewhat bland exterior conceals profound personal tragedy. Levov is exemplary in every way, the embodiment of the American Dream, but his daughter is an American Nightmare. After she embraced political terrorism in the 1960s, blew up a post office and became a fugitive from justice, Levov descended into a torturous inner life, even as he maintained the outward appearance of success. Through Levov, Roth explores the darkness and chaos lurking behind “the star-spangled banner.”

Down by the River by Edna O’Brien (HarperCollins, $32.50). O’Brien’s 21st book opens with the sweet, virginal Mary MacNamara being raped by her father, James, during a berry-picking walk in the Irish countryside. In this lively novel, the girl’s innocence stands in marked contrast to the machinations of those who use her to advance their positions in the ritualistic war over abortion rights. Lyrical, sometimes excessively so, and dark, though not without levity, the novel sees Mary made victim many times over, blamed by men and women for besmirching her parish or, worse, Ireland’s good name. “Some little slut,” one man says when her trip to EngZland for an abortion becomes a cause célèbre, “about to pour piss on the nation’s breast.” O’Brien does not so much put a father on trial as Ireland itself. “Rosaries and ovaries,” muses one character, “I don’t know which does the most damage to this country.”

The Two-Headed Calf by Sandra Birdsell (McClelland & Stewart, $19.99). Birdsell is one of the country’s most underrated writers, but this collection of powerful short stories should remedy that situation. The Regina-based author describes ordinary people in a way that reflects a line in a tale by the great storyteller Alice Munro: “People’s lives ... were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with linoleum.” Birdsell writes of lonely middle-aged women at odds with their daughters or exasperated by elderly mothers. She evokes children rebelling against their religious upbringing by immigrant parents (“Laugh, I dare you,” a daughter tells her stern mother. “Your face won’t crack. Honest.”). And there are grandparents coping with their offsprings’ disasters. But beneath everyday conflict looms the larger theme of the divided self—the two-headed calf of the title, straining in different directions, one heart beating. Birdsell’s elegantly constructed stories, both humorous and horrifying, crystallize those inner yearnings.

The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips (Knopf, $28.95). Phillips has taken a daring, imaginative leap in his latest novel—and the gamble has paid off brilliantly. The St. Kittsborn author, who divides his time between London and New York, interweaves the lives of very disparate characters: a German-Jewish girl who survives the Holocaust concentration camps, her doctor uncle who helps found Israel, the Jews of a ghetto in 16th-century Venice, Othello, shortly after his arrival in Venice, and a young Ethiopian-Jewish woman resettled in Israel. Their alternating voices, eloquent and unique, offer moving accounts of lives afflicted by racism and ethnic hatred. And in Phillips’s assured hand, the characters, linked across time by the ties of blood, never descend to the status of mere victims. His exploration of how individual journeys and historical forces intersect makes for an unforgettable novel.

Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99). There is a no-holds-barred nastiness to this novel about the end of colonial rule in Hong Kong that is quite bracing. Bunt Mullard and his mother, Betty, who wears her old-fashioned racism like a seedy pair of knitted slippers, live a cozy faux-Brit life in Hong Kong, where they run a knitting factory. But with the handover of the colony to China (Bunt and his mom like to call it the “Chinese take-away”), all that changes. A new business partner, Mr. Hung, comes along to eject the Mullards from their castled, kippered way of life. The quiet Chinese girl whom Bunt liked to keep in one corner of his life emerges as a potent threat—someone he may actual-

ly love. U.S.-based Theroux writes about betrayal—personal and cultural—with great relish, and his comic portrait of the Mullards having tea and oaties as the sun sets on the empire is very funny.

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson (McClelland & Stewart, $33.50).

If Henry James were a modern American woman with her erotic antennae tuned on high, he might have written Le Divorce, an amusing comedy of manners about an American in Paris. U.S. author Johnson has created the droll tale of Isabel Walker, an attractive California film-school dropout who goes to Paris to smooth out her Valley Girl edges. Instead, she ends up in the middle of her

stepsister Roxy’s messy divorce. Isabel— j delightfully observant of the absurd dif] ferences between the Americans and the | French—embarks on a romantic intrigue ¡ with a powerful French intellectual. Le j Divorce wryly reflects one of the excellent aphorisms Johnson puts to good use, this one by La Rochefoucauld: “One is | never as unhappy as one thinks, nor as ¡ happy as one hopes.”

Opium Dreams by Margaret Gibson (McClelland & Stewart, $19.99). As readers of her much-praised short stories are aware, Margaret Gibson is an exquisite chronicler of hell. In her first novel. Opium Dreams, Toronto-based Gibson examines the blasted lives of writer Maggie Glass, an epileptic and a rape victim, and her father, Timothy, who is dying of Alzheimer’s disease. Maggie is desperate to understand her father—and his destructive indifference to her rape several years earlier. Her search, interwoven with Timothy’s deepest, most traumatic memories, creates a poetically compelling vision of human suffering: the madhouses, old people’s homes and lonely, fright-filled nights chronicled in this book generate a strangely redemptive beauty.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Random House, $28.95). It is hard to believe that this is a first novel. The New Delhi author, who trained as an architect, has written a work that is complex in structure, sophisticated in its handling of time, and bold in its themes. But perhaps what is most remarkable is Roy’s deft use of language. At one point, Ammu, the mother of twins Esthappen and Rahel, the novel’s two protagonists, is staring in her mirror, worrying about all their futures. “She saw,” Roy writes, “a wisp of madness escape from its bottle and caper triumphantly around the bathroom.” Not much happens in the innocent world of the twins until their English cousin, Sophie Mol, comes to visit them in the Indian state of Kerala. Even though the catastrophic change that results is foreshadowed throughout the book, Roy is still able to surprise the reader. This is a remarkable debut.

The Origin of Waves by Austin Clarke (McClelland & Stewart, $19.99). When Tim and John, two old boyhood friends from Barbados, run into each other during a Toronto snowstorm, they retire to a nearby bar to catch up on the many years they have been apart. After a few drinks, they move beyond the usual tall tales men spin to impress each other, and get down to some hard truths about their loves and failures. Barbadian-born Clarke has often reflected on the myriad problems of Caribbean immigrants, whose allegiances are divided between two places. The Origin of Waves works that theme with a gentle melancholy and, finally, a spark of hopefulness that suggests that the immigrant’s travails need not end in unmitigated bitterness.

POPULAR FARE

For transatlantic flyers and armchair travellers: Peter Mayle’s Chasing Cézanne, a romp through Provence and the interna-

onal art world, and Edward Rutherfurd’s London, a novel spanning 2,000 years of he city’s history.

On the links and in the clubhouse: Jack Nicklaus: My Story and Tiger Woods: The Making of a Champion.

At the spa: Danielle Steel’s The Ranch, about the reunion of three women, former college roommates, at a Wyoming resort.

During breaks from jury duty: Without a Doubt, an apologia from Marcia Clark, prosecutor in the 0. J. Simpson trial.

At a motel in Kenora, Ont.: Charles Gordon’s The Canada Trip, the chronicle of a cross-country road odyssey.

On the beach or while vegetating anywhere: Brain Droppings, comedian George Carlin’s wit and wisdom on life.