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From the Extraordinary to the Bizarre

By Merle Rubin / July 8, 1996

Empire Under Glass

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By Julian Anderson

Faber and Faber

299 pp., $23.95


By Charles F. Price

Academy Chicago

197 pp., $20

The Debt to Pleasure

By John Lanchester

Henry Holt, 251 pp., $20

The Anniversary

By Rachel Canon

Random House

240 pp., $23

Almost every writer with aspirations toward artistry aims for originality. Few achieve it, although many mistake mere outlandishness for the real thing.

Julian Anderson's first novel, Empire Under Glass, is not only an ambitious work, but also a genuinely original one. It opens with a plane crash that deposits its narrator and heroine, a feisty octogenarian named Viola Bagg, at the bottom of a pond, preserved from drowning by the bubble of the cockpit windshield surrounding her. Calmly awaiting rescue, she takes the time to recollect the events of her long and unusual life.

Despite its somewhat heavy-handed, though engaging attempt at an unconventional start, the rest of the novel proves authentically extraordinary. The characters are at once eccentric yet convincing; the story is full of surprises but not the kind of cheap shock-effects that have become a staple of too much forgettable fiction.

Born on an island in the Indian Ocean, Viola loses her mother shortly after her birth. Viola is consigned by her father to the care of an aunt who lives in Canada.

In the years after World War I, Viola, by now a young woman, returns from Canada to her "native" island - which she doesn't actually remember. There she takes a job providing clerical assistance to an archaeological expedition being conducted by a party of British and North Americans.

The island of Wallawalhalla, complete with its own volcano, has no native population, but is full of eccentric transplants who form a makeshift sort of colonial society.

Viola's adventures on the island, her involvement in a violent act, her marriage, travels, and subsequent life are narrated in the distinctive voice of a woman who thinks for herself, but who is not a self-consciously posing "rebel." She is a romantic, but not foolish; unconventional, rather concerned with the need for morality in her own and other people's lives.

Brought up in an age when large, widely scattered regions of the globe bore the pink color of the British Empire, Viola comes to view her experience in the context of the eon in which empires rise and fall, yet she never loses touch with the immediate, specific, unrepeatable realities of her existence.

This story of an elderly lady looking back over nearly a century of life may prompt comparisons with Carol Shields's recent novel, "The Stone Diaries." But the resemblance is only skin-deep. Shields's characters are deliberately close to stereotypes, intended to embody typical 20th-century lives. Anderson's characters are utterly individualistic, yet the strangeness with which she has imbued them makes them resonate in the reader's imagination long after the last page.

First-time novelist Judson Mitcham has created a memorable and poignant character as narrator and hero of The Sweet Everlasting (University of Georgia Press 194 pp., $22.95), an affecting story set in the rural South.

Ellis Burt is a classic poor white: son of a sharecropper, uneducated, severely constrained by the limitations of his background, but essentially a decent man trying to do right.

He is in his 70s when we meet him, and looking back on a hard, sorrow-filled, but in some ways redeeming life that includes work in a textile mill, a succession of odd jobs, six years in prison, and the all-too-brief joys of marriage and fatherhood.

Ellis's homespun narration draws us back into the racially divided world of rural Georgia in the middle years of this century: its speech patterns, dirt roads, subsistence farms, greasy cafes, small churches, revivalists - its atmosphere of neighborliness, its flashes of violence.

We also get to meet some strongly memorable characters: Ellis's boyhood friend, a powerful black man named Isaiah Cutts; the man whose house Ellis shares in his old age, a disabled Italian-American former auto worker named Pete; and beautiful, self-contained, hard-working Susan, Ellis's wife and the mother of their much-loved son, W.D.

The tragic flaw that all but ruins Ellis's life, destroying his family and landing him in prison, is only gradually revealed in a terrible scene that has the undeniable ring of truth to it. Mitcham has movingly reordered the quirky details of a particular time and region and fitted them into a story that evokes the pity and terror of timeless tragedy.