Magic in a scientific world

The hospital threatens an old herbal healer who knows too much.

Books that successfully straddle two genres are a cause for celebration, but they risk falling through the cracks between niche markets. You can feel the resistance from either side: Romance readers might enjoy "The Time Traveler's Wife," but would they accept a lover who pops in and out of time? (They did - in droves - even before it was picked by the Today Show Book Club.) It seemed impossible to recommend Margaret Atwood's weird and wonderful "Blind Assassin" without apologizing nervously for the science fiction that runs through the story of domestic intrigue. (The Booker Prize in 2000 helped.) And last fall, beneath the lavish praise for Susanna Clark's "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" - a historical novel about the Napoleonic Wars - you could hear a pleading tone: "Yes, it's about magicians, but it's really good."

Englishman Graham Joyce is a popular and critically acclaimed writer of fantasy who's been sneaking over to the realm of literary fiction lately, producing stories that glint with pixie dust when you least expect it. In fact, his latest novel, "The Limits of Enchantment," is about the liminal hues that run between worlds we think of as wholly separate. Readers on both sides of the great genre divide would do well to peer into this one.

The story is told by Fern, the adopted daughter of an old herbal healer in a small English village. Mammy, as everyone calls her, wears a crusty, suspicious personality, but those who come to the moss-grown cabin feel the depth of her wisdom and compassion. She's spent her life helping the people of this village, particularly young women who find themselves carrying burdens they feel they cannot bring to term.

Like so much in this story, her service resides in a vague, never quite articulated zone, "a half secret." The year is 1966, and abortion isn't legal; everyone knows and doesn't know what she's up to. Mammy is willing but reluctant to help these girls, who afterward are relieved but sorrowful.

The strangeness of this in-between world is becoming clearer to Fern. Although she's 21, she still acts like a young dependent, allowing Mammy to guide her in all things. "In many ways Mammy had prevented me from being part of the changing times," she admits. She can't help wondering about life beyond the glow of her mother's wisdom. "The technology I could see advancing all around me and even in the skies overhead barely touched our lives." While helping Mammy collect herbs by moonlight, Fern looks up to spot Soviet satellites carrying dogs and monkeys. Surely, she thinks, that's as magical as Mammy's hedgerow medicine.

She also can't help wondering about sex, the great energy that seems to drive and ruin so many lives in their little village. In some ways, this is a novel all about sex. It even includes one of the funniest seduction scenes I can remember. But typical of Joyce's sleight of hand, there isn't any sex in the book. (I'm not being Clintonesque; you'll just have to read it for yourself.)

He's not a mystic, per se, or a Luddite or a wiccan or an alchemist, but those scents waft over the story now and then as he plumbs the tension between ancient wisdom and modern knowledge. That opposition breaks into the open when a pregnant girl dies and rumors point back to Mammy's herbal abortifacient. With her encyclopedic knowledge of the town's sexual abuse and folly, Mammy has plenty of enemies among the irresponsible men in town, and some hope that her patient's death will provide a convenient opportunity to silence the old witch for good.

While Mammy struggles with crippling guilt, newer enemies begin to swarm in, too. England's system of socialized medicine has drawn the government into healthcare matters that were long considered private. Suddenly, Mammy's practice and even her personal health are matters of official concern: Who authorized her to heal without a license? And, come to think of it, should a woman of her mature age be living without the benefit of modern medical care herself?

Mammy quickly finds not only her profession but her sanity questioned, and for the first time, Fern must move to protect them both against official and maniacal forces that Mammy used to fend off by herself. "Mammy had stood like a door of oak and iron," she says, "between me and the outside world."

The subtlety of Joyce's position is one of the many pleasures of this novel. If there are slips of melodrama and pretension here, they quickly dart behind toadstools, and we're left to consider the friction between nature and technology.

On one side, members of The Few, a shadowy group to whom Mammy belongs, have no use for pharmaceuticals and X-rays, while on the other side, the doctors regard Mammy's herbs and premonitions as ridiculous.

But Fern struggles to nurture some compromise between these worlds. When Mammy can't work any longer, Fern enrolls in a midwife course and does her best to endure the instructor's condescension and the chilling impersonality of the hospital. She can effectively sense the position of a fetus with her touch, but she marvels at the ultrasound machine. Is there no overlap, she wonders, between these two competing systems of thought?

The hippies camped out at an adjoining farm seem to offer another viable alternative to modern technology, but Joyce is clearly unimpressed by their self-absorption. Their mushrooms help no one; their rejection of marriage falls heavily on unattached children; their commune is laziness dressed up as idealism.

Fern must find some way to harmonize these forces in her life that refuse to cohere. She must temper the materialism of the hospital, the radicalism of the mystics, and the selfishness of the hippies. It's a challenge that almost costs her her life.

This is a strange little novel, full of ideas that are sometimes deep, sometimes vague. A surreal dark-night-of-the-soul climax involving a giant rabbit is particularly dramatic, even if I'm not always entirely sure what it means. But the story is thoroughly charming, in the old and modern senses of that word, and as Fern remarks toward the end of her journey, "Strange can be good."

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.

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