Fiction roundup

Family Linen, by Lee Smith. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 272 pp. $15.95. A childhood memory relived through hypnosis, a funeral that brings about a family reunion, and the excavation of a swimming pool on the site of an old well uncover a family secret in this darkly humorous novel by native Virginian Lee Smith, author of ``Oral History.'' The Hess family of Booker Creek, a small Virginia mountain town, is a motley crew made up of four sisters, their brother, spouses, in-laws, children, two crazy aunts, and a cousin. These characters are ordinary and outrageous at the same time; you understand them, but in the case of only a few does this unde rstanding generate any sympathy. In the course of the story all the family's dirty linen is aired, and Smith provides a behind-the-scenes look at life in a small Southern town. Honorable Men, by Louis Auchincloss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 278 pp. $15.95.

Auchincloss's latest novel about the privileged American upper classes is serious, well-written, and surprisingly uninvolving. Chip Benedict, scion of a wealthy and socially prominent Connecticut family, is educated at Yale and the University of Virginia Law School, serves with distinction in the Navy during World War II, takes over the family glass business, and marries the debutante of the year, beautiful, penniless Alida Struthers. All his life Chip is dogged by a feeling of guilt that behind his per fect faade he is far from perfect. While Alida is charming and likable, Chip is cold and unsympathetic, and this reviewer found it almost impossible to care about him and his agonies of the soul. Return Trips, stories by Alice Adams. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 195 pp. $14.95.

The characters in these 15 stories, set in San Francisco, Santa Fe, N.M., Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and a fictional Southern university town called Hilton, return to places and people from the past and travel to new places and meet new people. The stories are short, yet a lot goes on in the emotional lives of these characters: women who are shy, somewhat awkward, neither beautiful nor plain. They are intelligent and successful in their literary and academic careers, less successful in love and friendshi p. They are often people who don't belong -- Northerners in the South, Easterners in California, Americans abroad or over the border. Adams, the author of ``Superior Women'' and ``Rich Rewards,'' captures the details of her people and places quickly and deftly. Still Life, by Antonia Byatt. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 384 pp. $16.95.

Set in Yorkshire and Cambridge in the 1950s, this richly textured, beautifully written novel operates on two levels. It continues the story of the lower-middle class Potter family begun in ``The Virgin in the Garden'' (although ``Still Life'' stands on its own), and it comments on visual experience, perception, and creativity using the life and works of Vincent van Gogh as an example. The characters -- former teacher and mother-to-be Stephanie Potter Orton; her husband, Daniel, a curate; her sister Fred erica, a student at Cambridge; Marcus, her sensitive, depressed brother; her stern parents; and her self-centered mother-in-law -- are wonderfully depicted. Byatt evokes their experiences (a family Christmas, the birth of a baby, a spring and summer spent in Provence) as mental paintings full of color and light. An Unkindness of Ravens, by Ruth Rendell. New York: Pantheon Books. 245 pp. $15.95.

The battle of the sexes becomes somewhat bloody in Rendell's 13th Chief Inspector Wexford mystery. One of the Wexfords' neighbors, who turns out to be a bigamist maintaining two families in the Kingsmarkham area, is murdered. A teen-age feminist group is suspected of being responsible for attacks on two other men, and the pregnancy of Wexford's partner's wife is causing family dissension. Wexford, in one of the best novels in the series, has to sort it all out. As in her non-Wexford novels (``The Killin g Doll,'' ``The Tree of Hands''), Rendell delves into the psychological makeup of her characters and presents an incisive portrait of middle-class life in Britain.

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