Life's Little Details Framed by Tenderness

The God of Small Things

By Arundhati Roy Random House

321 pp., $23

Heat Lightning

By Leah Hager Cohen Avon Books

326 pp., $22

Boondocking

By Tricia Bauer Bridge Works

227 pp., $21.95

The first novel by Arundhati Roy, a New Dehli-based screenwriter, won the coveted Booker Prize in England last month.

The prize conveys the prestige that goes with being judged the year's best novel by an Anglophone writer (excluding writers who are US citizens, that is). Like more than a few recent winners of this award, however, Roy's novel The God of Small Things proved a somewhat controversial choice, the latest in a series of winners many critics felt did not quite merit the distinction.

Narrated in the third person, the story is seen through the eyes of Rahel and her twin brother, Estha, in India. The intricate web of events and their unforeseen consequences is anchored on two points in time: the early 1990s, when the twins, now adults, are reunited after 23 years' separation, and the late 1960s, when their eight-year-old lives were shattered by wrenching, fateful mishaps.

The reader is immersed in the children's family history: their lonely divorced mother involved in a secret love affair; their spiteful great-aunt scheming to cause trouble; their jolly, Oxford-educated uncle, who spouts Marxism while collecting his profits from the family pickle factory; his British ex-wife and their daughter, who come to Kerala for a Christmas visit; the handyman whose success incites resentment among those who refuse to tolerate an untouchable rising above his caste.

It is a world in which grand-sounding ideals are reduced to nonsense, where petty snobbery and envy have grave consequences, and where a child's confusion can weirdly echo the larger social and cultural confusions surrounding it.

Roy's prose style is rather offputting at first, coy and overwrought, like this description of the heavy June rain in the south Indian province of Kerala, where the novel is set: "Heaven opened and the water hammered down ... carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds. The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush."

Yet, as the writer spins the complex web of her story, her idiosyncratic style serves to reflect the bizarre world it portrays: chaotic, frenetic, ridiculous, comic, bitter, and horribly tragic.

Leah Hager Cohen, the author of Heat Lightning, also has had previous writing experience, with two well-received works of nonfiction to her credit. "Train Go Sorry" (Doubleday) examined the lives of students at a school for the deaf. "Glass, Paper, Beans" (Vintage) scrutinized the complicated "stories" behind three very ordinary household objects.

Cohen's first novel is a finely wrought portrait of an 11-year-old girl and the summer that she comes to a new understanding of her family and herself.

Martha, nicknamed Mole, and her 12-year-old sister, Tilly, live with their Aunt Hy in a small village beside a lake. The girls cannot remember their mother and father, who were drowned in an accident when the children were still infants. Over the years, the sisters have pieced together a kind of private mythology about their parents, based on the meager facts they've been told and their own imaginings.

Their private myth is about to change when a new family comes to town to rent a summer cottage. The Rouens are scientists, engaged in studying the local marine life. They have four children, the eldest of whom, Walter, is a year older than Tilly.

This is the summer that Tilly, in Mole's opinion, "goes off," which is to say, she becomes less accessible, less close, to her younger sister. Mole narrates the story, now speaking as an adult, but telling what happened from the viewpoint of her preteen self.

This particular narrative vantage point enables the author to avail herself of the subtle and sophisticated vocabulary of an adult in rendering the engagingly fresh, naive outlook of a young girl. Here, for instance, is Mole at the public library, casting a longing look at the entrance to the children's section as she prepares to accompany her older sister and Walter into the adult reference section to do "research" on her parents' accident:

"[It] was hung with a green-and-blue daisied curtain, which, since it was always tied back on both sides, did not provide a separation between children and adults so much as a frame, a sort of proscenium beyond which lay a stage of infinite and sublime fantasy worlds.... Every time I stepped past the drawn curtain, I seemed to enter a charmed space immune to the intrusions of adult knowledge: here flowers and tugboats had yearnings, and pigs wore bonnets, and little trains conversed with their passengers."

Without resorting to sensationalism or melodrama, Cohen touchingly evokes the kinds of small shocks and changes that have deep meaning to a young girl's growing awareness.

Everything, from habits of speech and quirks of character to the look, feel, and smell of the natural surroundings - the lake, the trees, the mussel shells that Mole makes into toy "houses"- is rendered with loving and careful attention that lends a luminous glow to the simplest detail.

Tricia Bauer, the author of a story collection called "Working Women" (Bridge Works) also has a keen eye for detail, which she uses to good effect in her first novel, Boondocking.

The unprepossessing hero and heroine are a middle-aged, working-class couple, Clayton and Sylvia Vaeth, who give up their quiet suburban life to take to the road in a trailer.

They plan to visit every state in the country - and to make sure that their son-in-law Melvin, a substance-abuser whose reckless driving resulted in the death of their daughter, Janice, will not get his hands on their baby granddaughter.

Never really free from the fear of being followed by Melvin, the Vaeths set off on a journey that is also a distinct lifestyle, very different from their previous existence.

Alone and unmoored the first rainy night of their travels, Sylvia and Clayton start making the necessary mental adjustments:

"As cards clicked and slid on the Formica tabletop.... the rain drumming steadily just above their heads, Sylvia thought of how the trailer had looked from outside when she'd stood at the edge of the wet grass. The safe squares of warm window light came out of nowhere.... But while the lights seemed as if nothing held them in place, she could see the dark figure of a man and the smaller silhouette of a baby in his arms, inside the glowing space."

Bauer not only provides a vivid, believable account of the Vaeths' and their adventures on the road, but she also offers a closer look at the many ways in which trailer-life affects their sense of themselves and their perception of the world spinning by around them.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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