Memory and Imagination Reclaim the Past

Stories take readers from the Old Testament to the Jim Crow South to contemporary Hollywood.


By Mary Burnett Smith

William Morrow

277 pp.,$24


By Anita Diamant.

A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press

321 pp., $23.95


By Joseph Skibell

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

256 pp, $21.95


By Sandra Tsing Loh

Riverhead Books

231 pp., $23.95

Sifting through the stacks of first novels that pile up in my study, I came across four that, in their very different ways, managed to hold my attention and engage my imagination.

These four writers tackle totally dissimilar subjects. Each has honed a distinct style of writing. And each has chosen to work in a very different novelistic form.

Ordinary daily life in rural Virginia in 1948 is the subject of Mary Burnett Smith's evocative Miss Ophelia. Herself a retired schoolteacher, Smith touchingly portrays a pivotal summer in the life of Isabel ("Belly") Anderson, an 11-year-old black girl. The story is told by Isabel herself, now a grandmother with a keen memory for the people and events that helped form her adult character.

A voracious reader, young Belly devours every book she can get her hands on, from fairy tales to "Silas Marner." She also learns from observing what goes on around her. There are secrets aplenty: teenage pregnancy, illicit love affairs, hushed-up abortions. But, as her Uncle Willie wisely remarks, the more she finds out, the less likely it is that she'll make the same mistakes.

Belly learns by example and counter-example: from those she loves, like her clear-headed mother, and from those of whom she's not so fond, like her mother's carping, sanctimonious sister, Aunt Rachel. When she reluctantly goes for a long visit to her aunt's, Belly's great consolation is taking piano lessons from the reclusive, but kindly Miss Ophelia.

Entering adolescence in the segregated South, Belly inhabits a world that is largely black, but not free from color prejudice. Light-skinned Aunt Rachel looks down on plum-colored Miss Ophelia, even though the latter is far better educated than she is.

Learning to judge people by their inner qualities is another lesson Belly learns on her journey toward adulthood. Smith has created an appealing heroine, refreshingly outspoken, yet capable of self-criticism and self-discipline.

Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is a historical novel, more specifically, a biblical novel, a genre that has attracted such diverse talents as Lew Wallace, Sholem Asch, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Thomas Mann.

Diamant's novel is based on the biblical figure Dinah, only daughter of the patriarch Jacob, sister to the 12 brothers whose offspring became the tribes of Israel. Dinah's main claim to fame in Genesis arose from her being raped by the son of a neighboring king. But, as Diamant has conceived it, there is much more to her story.

In "The Red Tent," she creates a voice for this neglected woman, allowing her to tell, not only her version of the rape, but the entire story of her life and the lives of her mothers. Dinah is born to the fecund, capable Leah. But Jacob's other wives - Leah's sister Rachel, and Zilpah and Bilhah - are also "mothers" to her. Each has something special to impart, whether it's Leah's excellent recipes, Zilpah's legends and songs, Bilhah's kind-heartedness, or Rachel's skills as a midwife.

Diamant, an award winning journalist, vividly conjures up the ancient world of caravans, shepherds, farmers, midwives, slaves, and artisans in a novel that takes us from Mesopotamia and Canaan down into Egypt, where Dinah, like her more famous brother Joseph, finds a refuge.

It's revisionist feminist history, to be sure, but inventiveness befits a work of fiction. Diamant's Dinah is a compelling narrator of a tale that has timeless resonance.

In A Blessing on the Moon, Joseph Skibell has created a kind of extended fable, with strong elements of fantasy and the grotesque. This proves a remarkably effective way of dealing with a subject, the reality of which is too horrible for most of us to grasp: the murder of Europe's Jews in the Holocaust.

Rather than try to reconstruct what actually happened, Skibell invents an imaginary tale, nightmarish and hallucinatory, that functions as a kind of "subjective correlative" to historical reality.

The main character is based on the author's great-grandfather, Chaim Skibelski, who, along with others in his family, perished in the Holocaust. The story begins the moment after Chaim and the other Jews of his village have been rounded up, taken into the forest, and shot by Nazi soldiers. The dead Chaim is amazed to find himself still on earth, conversing with the village's rabbi, who has been transformed into a talking crow!

Still suffering from his bullet wounds, Chaim drags himself to his old house, where a Gentile family is making itself at home. Although he walks right past them, no one sees him, except for the family's frail teenage daughter, the only one to feel pity for him.

Chaim's friendship with the compassionate girl is just the first of his strange, often heart breaking, adventures. He and the other murdered Jews from his village wander the woods. Although dead, they are not immune to fear, grief, or suffering.

At one point, Chaim reluctantly lends aid to a dead German soldier, who turns out to have been part of the group that killed him. Later, the exhausted band of Jews finds an unbelievably hospitable welcome at a luxurious hotel, only to see this dream-come-true dissolve into yet another nightmare.

In this mysterious limbo world, even the dead fear for their lives. Before he finally attains his longed-for release, Chaim has "lived through" a series of surreal, symbolic episodes that eerily recapitulate aspects of the Holocaust.

Rather in the way that dreams sometimes seem to replay problematic incidents from waking life, these posthumous wanderings perform a dream work for the dead - and for the living who seek to understand something of what they suffered.

Utterly contemporary, wryly sardonic and rueful, Sandra Tsing Loh's If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home by Now, is a smart, funny, accurate portrait of Los Angeles in the 1990s. L.A. is a favorite target for would-be satirists content to recycle tired, often untrue, cliches about Hollywood glitz and Disneyland kitsch.

The author of a book of autobiographical sketches, "Aliens in America," and a book of essays, "Depth Takes a Holiday," Tsing Loh has a different take on the subject: She knows what's she's talking about.

Bronwyn Peters and her boyfriend, Paul are approaching 30 and getting nowhere fast. Once upon a time, they'd convinced themselves that renting a rundown tract house off the beaten track was genuinely off-beat.

After six years of scruffiness, Bronwyn is beginning to hanker for the finer things: a spiffy kitchen with copper pans, for instance, or a car that actually runs. She and Paul are barely getting by on her graduate fellowship and his unemployment checks. According to his writing teachers, Paul has real talent. But now he's willing to "sell out" - if only he could find a buyer for his screenplay.

What's needed are contacts, which are not that hard to make in the superficially open, democratic, don't-stand-on-ceremony world of southern California. Bronwyn finds she has a knack for "schmoozing" with some of the town's movers and shakers.

Before long, the down-at-heel bohemian couple are hobnobbing with Hollywood insiders.

But, as Tsing Loh well understands, L.A. is a town where there can be fewer than six degrees of separation between the insiders and outsiders, and the outsiders still end up no closer to their dreams. Tsing-Loh's astute, witty look at young hopefuls running out of hope is as poignant as it is insightful.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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