From the Extraordinary to the Bizarre

By

Empire Under Glass

By Julian Anderson

Faber and Faber

Recommended: Nora Ephron: 12 quotes to commemorate her life

299 pp., $23.95

Hiwassee

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.

Charles F. Price's novel, Hiwassee, unfolds in the rural South of a century ago during the fierce, fratricidal violence that accompanied the American Civil War.

Based on the author's research into his own family's history, the story focuses on the Curtises, who have a large farm in the fertile uplands of North Carolina.

This once rather isolated countryside has become beleaguered by marauding bands of highly irregular soldiers who've taken it upon themselves to operate outside military discipline and the law. They roam the countryside, ostensibly rooting out die-hard secessionists, but actually taking the opportunity to burn, pillage, loot, and kill wherever and whomever they choose.

Price's beautifully evocative prose imparts a sense of immediacy to the landscape of valley, hill, field, stream, and forest and conveys the menace of war's depredations on the daily lives of ordinary people who thought they were involved in a gallant cause, only to be brought face-to-face with its uglier realities. The actual plot of the novel is less successful than its purely descriptive passages.

"Hiwassee" joins the long, and I think very misleading, tradition of novels, stories, and films that for more than a century have been presenting the defeated Confederacy as a bastion of civilization. Readers may wish to counterbalance this and other stirring accounts of upstanding Southern agrarians with a revisit to MacKinlay Kantor's "Andersonville."

Another curious cultural trend of late has been a spate of novels exploring - or perhaps exploiting - the outer limits of sybaritic behavior: womanizers who are, quite literally, lady-killers, gourmands teetering on the brink of cannibalism, connoisseurs willing to do anything to possess precious artifacts or experience exquisite sensations.

A recent addition to this odd genre is John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, which at least has the virtue of being more elegantly written and far less calculatedly repellent than many others in this vein. Lanchester's erudite narrator, Tarquin Winot, offers mouth-watering menus and recipes for his favorite meals while discoursing knowledgeably and wittily on seasonal vegetables, the history of the potato, the landscape of Brittany, the importance of eggs in French cuisine, the British weakness for strong spices, the dynamics of restaurant dining, and much more.

All this, while gradually revealing what a shifty, indeed, evil, character he is, even as he entertains us with his flair for the "finer" things.

This is a work of considerable polish, if not exactly a paragon of philosophical profundity, or, to borrow a term from the culinary world, it's an artfully concocted hors d'oeurve.

No trace of such subtlety can be found in Rachel Canon's, The Anniversary, a glib yet feeble attempt at a novel of suspense that seems to be aimed at liberated, if not overly literate, women.

The narrator, Nora, is a smart, attractive, dynamic, single, career woman. Nora's up-to-the-minute job involves state-of-the-art, world-class educational software.

Nora's chief claim to fame, however, is that she was best friend of the late Melanie Lombard, a smart, attractive, incredibly dynamic, charismatic blonde who was the first woman ever to be elected president of the United States - until her promising regime was cut off by the bullet of a crazed female assassin only three days after the inauguration.

The novel opens on the anniversary of that terrible event. Nora, and Melanie's surviving husband, Hank, are concerned about a nasty rumor suggesting that Melanie was involved with a mysterious Frenchman, who worked for an Arab sultan.

A biographer famous for the depth and tenacity of his investigative skills is working on a life of the late President Lombard. Hank and Nora worry that he may turn up material that will tarnish her bright image.

Meanwhile, sinister forces are at work, seemingly bent on preventing Melanie's successor, the well-meaning but not very charismatic or dynamic Danny Court, from carrying out Melanie's noble programs of improving education and controlling pollution.

Far be it from this reviewer to spoil the suspense by giving away any of the novel's few (fairly tame) secrets.

But a brief sample may help potential readers decide if this is the sort of book they're in the market for: "Deena has one of the keenest political minds ever to grace our nation's capital," says the narrator about one of the novel's many minor characters whose roles never quite gel. "She was with Melanie from the early Senate days and her compact body and firecracker personality are legendary on the Hill."

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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