Far-Flung Tales of the Ordinary

These first novels, up close and personal, all delve into the lives of their characters and draw out their uniqueness.


By C.S. Godshalk

Henry Holt

472 pp., $25


By Annalita Marsigli

Overlook Press

315 pp., $24.95


By Richard Teleky

Steerforth Press

218 pp., $24


By Paul Hond

Random House

360 pp., $23

Most anyone who is - or who has tried to be - a writer has probably had the experience of being approached by a relative stranger (or perhaps a strange relative) offering to share a fantastic, unbelievable true story that "simply must" be made into a novel. Most novelists shudder at the thought, knowing that the more outlandish the story, the less interesting the novel that can be made from it. For, as Anton Chekhov observed, people don't go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they stay at home and eat cabbage soup.

Kalimantaan, by C.S. Godshalk, is a vastly ambitious, intricately plotted novel based on the stranger-than-fiction real-life story of the 19th-century Englishman who carved out his own private kingdom in the jungles of Borneo. Godshalk has modeled her hero, Gideon Barr, on Sir James Brooke, the so-called "white rajah" of Sarawak, who was awarded his fiefdom in 1841 by the Sultan of Brunei for having helped put down the rebellions of local native tribes.

Godshalk, who has lived in Southeast Asia, researched her subject thoroughly. She writes vividly of life in the tropics, and provides a richly detailed portrait of the turbulent environment in which Brooke/Barr operated, a world of tribal head-hunters, Chinese opium traders, and a motley crew of European adventurers. But few of her characters are developed in depth, and the Conradian themes she tackles require more complexity of imagination than she is able to bring to them. Her talent is promising, her efforts admirable, but the result is less compelling than one might have expected.

Annalita Marsigli's The Written Script is another ambitious first novel that does not completely fulfill its promise. The chief problem, I suspect, may have something to do with an extremely determinist world view, which, by the novel's end, seems to have usurped all other elements of the story. But despite this drawback, much of the book, up until that point, is quite enthralling.

Invoking the conventions of the genre of speculative fiction, Marsigli invites us to consider the hypothesis of a man who returns to earth 10 years after his own death. Ivain La Baille, killed at the outset of the novel, is a renowned scholar who has made a lifelong study of Julius Caesar. The idea of fame and immortality has always captivated his imagination. Allowed to return but not to reveal his old identity, Ivain (now called John) revisits his beloved wife and tries to find out what has become of his magnum opus.

Although he is accompanied on his return to earth by a mysterious beauty named Allegra, Ivain finds himself still very much in love with his wife (who is now married to his cousin). As he contends with questions of love, work, and identity, he also struggles with another, and to him more disturbing, conundrum: his suspicion that he is trapped in a predetermined "written script" not of his own making. Ivain's efforts to escape the written script and his interaction with the other characters make for engrossing reading, even though the novel's overwrought closing scene is disappointing, aiming at profundity but missing the mark.

A totally different kind of novel is Paul Hond's The Baker, an absorbing work of social realism set in the author's native Baltimore. The eponymous hero is Mickey Lerner, a middle-aged Jewish man who owns a bakery in a neighborhood that has changed from largely Jewish to predominantly black. Family relations and black-Jewish relations are the heart of Mickey's strongly affecting, believable story.

Mickey's wife, Emi, is a moderately successful concert violinist. The fact that they are an odd match of backgrounds and temperaments is one of the many factors imparting texture and conviction to the story. The Lerners' 18-year-old son, Ben, works at the bakery, but seems uninterested in following in his father's footsteps. A rather aimless youth, Ben loves basketball and likes hanging out with his fellow-employee Nelson, the son of a black family with whom Mickey shares some history. Hond's account of the two young men's friendship is particularly perceptive, deftly illustrating how teenagers can get in over their heads trying to prove to one another how "cool" they are.

Then, one night, lives are shattered by a brutal crime. Hond is equally adept at portraying the shock of a violent act and the vague uneasiness of unresolved problems between a husband and wife. He writes insightfully of racial and social attitudes, and the efforts of individuals to resist the pressure to think in - or fall into - stereotypes. One puts down this novel with the feeling of having shared in the lives of some very real, quietly decent, people.

Social realism is also a feature of The Paris Years of Rosie Kamin, a slighter, but still engaging, bittersweet first novel by Richard Teleky. Rosie Kamin is an American Jewish woman who, when we meet her at the opening of the novel, has been living in Paris for 20 years. Rosie left her native Pittsburgh for Paris a year after graduating from college. She had been shaken by some recent shocks in her personal life, starting with the suicide of her mother, an Auschwitz survivor who had never been able to talk about her dreadful experiences.

Rosie has a small apartment in a shabby part of Paris, a job teaching English to foreign students, and a history of involvement with charming but feckless Arab immigrants. She is now leading a quiet domestic life with a kindly but threadbare French leftwing intellectual. Although her expatriate existence has been less than glamorous, Rosie feels little desire to go home again. In some sense, she is in flight from a host of unresolved issues.

With a sharp eye for the details of the milieu his heroine inhabits and a sympathetic understanding of her moods and emotions, Teleky skillfully evokes the feel of Rosie's world. Deeply unassertive in her relationships with men, she is quick to lend a helping hand to those who are down-and-out, and just as quick to imagine slights and insults where none exist - particularly when she is dealing with her Frenchman's aristocratic family. Whether the reader finds her a highly appealing heroine or merely a poignant, somewhat exasperating, lost soul, Rosie is a character who rings true.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

Preparing the Staff of Life

Ben wasn't sure what to make of his next-door neighbor. She'd wanted so badly to be a heroic presence in the wake of Emi's death, but it just hadn't worked out; only once since Thanksgiving had she invited Ben over to dinner, and that had been a minor disaster: everything about the evening, from the lemony scent of cleansers to the big smile frozen on Shirley's face, had suggested nervous preparations and efforts to make him feel at home, and it soon became eerily obvious that the Finkles were imagining that Ben was a sort of grown orphan whom they had adopted. When he remarked how good the food was, they looked at each other as though their doubts as to whether he had ever enjoyed a home-cooked meal had been confirmed.

- From 'The Baker'

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