Child's-Eye Views of Family Life

From Northern Ireland to Canada, gaining a deeper understanding of complex ties between generations

Reading in the dark

By Seamus Deane

Alfred A. Knopf

246 pp., $23

The Music Teacher

By Robert Starer

Overlook Press

205 pp., $23.95

The Jade Peony

By Wayson Choy

Picador, 238 pp., $22

Bright Angel Times

By Martha McPhee

Random House

244 pp., $23

Not all first novelists are neophytes in literature. Subtle in its technique yet powerful in its effect, Seamus Deane's first novel, Reading in the Dark, is the work of an accomplished poet and literary scholar who has long concerned himself with the history, culture, and continuing "troubles" of his native Northern Ireland.

His first work of fiction is the story of a young boy growing up there in the years immediately after World War II.

The narrator is a bright and sensitive boy, the third of seven children in a Roman Catholic family with IRA connections and a tangled web of secrets that takes him years to unravel. In a series of short, strongly concentrated chapters, we watch as this observant young mind comes to grasp more and more of the disturbingly complicated family and world into which he has been born.

Writing, one of his teachers tells him, is "just telling the truth." But the truth can be hard to find: not only the truth about the secret feuds and scandals in his family history, but also the truth about what is seen and heard in the present moment.

In one memorable episode, the young narrator witnesses an accident in the street: a small boy run over by a delivery truck unexpectedly shifting into reverse gear. When the police arrive on the scene, one of them is so upset that he becomes violently ill. Years later, the narrator hears someone who was not at the scene telling the story of a boy who was run over by a police car that didn't even stop.

The narrator's father, mother, grandfather, his lively Aunt Katie, his vanished Uncle Eddie, are powerful figures, both as presences and absences: They are loved family members but also pieces in a puzzle, whose stories are hidden even from themselves. "I knew," says the narrator, "... he [the narrator's father] was going to tell me something terrible some day, and, in sudden fright, didn't want him to.... But, at the same time, I wanted to know everything. That way I could love him more; but I'd love myself less for making him tell me...."

Beautifully written, intensely imagined, "Reading in the Dark" is a keenly intelligent and compassionate novel about the broadening and deepening of a young boy's mind and heart.

A well-known classical composer and the author of an autobiography, "Continuo: A Life in Music" (Random House, 1987), Robert Starer has now ventured into the realms of fiction with his first novel, The Music Teacher. Perhaps he has not ventured all that far afield, for his subject is one he clearly knows very intimately: the world of musicmaking.

The hero, Bernard Winter, is a gifted pianist who turned his back on the fiercely competitive world of international concertizing in order to teach. He is a sought-after teacher and can claim at least one student who went on to achieve greatness.

One day, an attractive and unusually talented woman, Lydia, asks to study with him. The two seem to have a lot in common. Both were formerly married to spouses who valued success over everything else. Both feel that the pleasure of making beautiful music is more important than the trappings of external success. They start playing piano duets together, just for the musical delight of it.

Soon, however, they are thinking of performing, he of returning to the concert stage, she of making her debut, each sustained by the other. The challenges and pressures to which they are subjected reveal surprising qualities about each of them.

Starer writes knowledgeably and convincingly about music - as an art and as a business. His novel also has much of value to say about the ways in which the drive for success and corresponding fear of failure can distort deeper human values. His prose is less than elegant, but it has the clarity and focus necessary to the task at hand.

A winner of Canada's Trillium Award, Wayson Choy's first novel, The Jade Peony, offers a poignant, intimate look at a Chinese immigrant family in Vancouver in the decade leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Divided into three sections, the story is told from the distinctive viewpoints of three of the family's four children: only sister Jook-Liang, second brother Jung-Sum, and youngest brother Sek-Lung. (Oldest brother Kiam is perhaps too mature and grown up to function as a an ingenuous young narrative voice.)

Jook-Liang is a lively, resilient little girl who loves reading, tap-dancing, and movies, especially those starring Shirley Temple. Undaunted by her elderly grandmother's disparaging attitude toward "useless girl" offspring, Jook-Liang befriends her grandmother's ancient bachelor friend from "Old China" days, a bent, wizened old gentleman who looks just like the Monkey King of her grandmother's fables.

Jook-Liang's eldest brother is the son of her father and his first, now departed, wife. The next brother, Jung-Sum, is an orphan adopted by the family and treated as one of their own. A brave, self-reliant child, Jung slowly discovers what it was about him that led his adoptive grandmother to firmly pronounce him "different."

While second brother Jung loves athletics and boxing, Sek-Lung, the youngest, was a sickly baby, requiring his doting grandmother's gladly given attention. His story, as it happens, provides the broadest picture of the era as a whole.

This was a time when immigrants from China and Japan were essentially barred from citizenship, and even their children born in Canada were considered resident aliens. It was also a time of great anxiety for the Chinese expatriates hearing constant reports of the Japanese invasion of their homeland.

Yet little "Sekky," as he's called, finds a sense of stability in the wisdom and lore of his grandmother, as well as a different but usually reassuring sense of order in the strictly run classroom of his teacher, Miss Doyle, who makes sure that all of her immigrant pupils - Chinese, Italian, Polish-Jewish, even the suspiciously regarded Japanese - learn to speak the King's English.

Insightful, wise, and touching, "The Jade Peony" is one of the many fascinating accounts - fictional and nonfictional - that have been appearing about the lives of Asian-American immigrants. It is also one of the best-written and most imaginatively conceived of these accounts.

Of late, there have also been more than a few first novels about children growing up in the 1970s, especially the topsy-turvy world of those children whose parents embraced "alternative lifestyles." For the three Cooper sisters in Martha McPhee's Bright Angel Time, the breakup of their parents' marriage is only the first in a series of culture shocks.

Eight-year-old Kate, the youngest, is the narrator. It's she who feels closest to their father, a geologist, who loved telling her about the stories of the earth's past hidden in rocks like Bright Angel Shale. It's he, however, who decided to leave Mom for another, less childish, woman.

For, as Kate discovers in the course of what follows, her mother, Eve, has been waiting for a chance to "find herself."

In Eve's case this turns out to mean attaching herself to a charismatic Gestalt therapist and guru-at-large who is also an ex-Jesuit priest recently separated from his wife, a former nun contemplating joining an ashram in India.

Without a thought for their welfare, Mom packs up the girls and heads west, driving across the country to join Anton at Esalen, a self-realization mecca in California.

The three girls are expected to become instant siblings to Anton's five children, and all eight kids live in a messy, cramped camper while the adults are busy getting in touch with their inner selves amid hot tubs and other luxurious amenities.

Seen through Kate's innocent yet observant eyes, Anton is both attractive and appalling: a man who preaches love and forgiveness but who loses his temper at the slightest provocation; a man who calls himself a feminist, yet never performs a single household chore; a man who talks endlessly of "equality," but who insists on making all the decisions.

As for Mom, when Kate expresses concern about what may happen next, her response is "Be here now."

McPhee's portrait of what might be called hippie hypocrisy avoids heavy-handedness, relying instead on irony and wry humor. The story wanders off in odd directions and the ending is unsatisfyingly stagey. But there's plenty of food for thought in this shrewd account of children playing parents to their parents.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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