What to read: March fiction

Allegra Goodman's hilarious tale of promiscuous spiritual seeking, Pat Barker's tough-minded look at a child who murders, Nuala O'Faolain's searing novel of middle-aged sexuality and more.

Published March 15, 2001 7:55PM (EST)

These final dragging days of winter call for hearty fictional fare, something to get the brain cells hopping and the blood pumping. In the pile of new March fiction, amid the usual well-intentioned snoozers, shameless formula rip-offs and flavorless commercial pap, we found a few clear winners. Our picks this month kept us furiously turning pages with their robust combination of brains and storytelling pizazz. There's a comical look at an endearingly frantic religious quester; a suspenseful tale of a child who murders and the psychologist called to testify at his trial; a sexy, rueful novel of middle-aged lovers; and more. So hunker down, cheer up and dig into our late-winter fictional feast.

Paradise Park by Allegra Goodman

Sharon Spiegelman, the prattling narrator of Allegra Goodman's new novel, is a spiritual seeker. If you associate that kind of person with a flighty, credulous, smorgasbord-style approach to religion, you wouldn't be wrong about Sharon, but you wouldn't be entirely right, either. At the book's beginning, in the 1970s, Sharon finds herself in a Honolulu hotel room, bereft of money, purpose and the boyfriend, Gary, she'd traveled with across country from Boston. What she does have, though, are "all these questions and ideas about this higher power and this divine spirit, and maybe I would have been dealing with them if I hadn't been so broke."

With a guitar, a couple of Indian gauze skirts and a macramé bikini, Sharon launches into a series of adventures, beginning with enlisting, as an untrained volunteer, in a bird-counting project on a remote island with a pack of zoologists. Even as the team's errand girl, with a headful of mites caught from birds who are "so noble, but also so disgruntled ... staring with unforgiving beady eyes," Sharon hankers after the ineffable. She's a spiritual Goldilocks, sampling one bowl of porridge after another -- from the solitary contemplation of nature to, back in Honolulu, evangelical Christianity, workshop New Age-ism, Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism. Nature is too lonely, the ecstasies of revival meetings too fleeting, the Buddhist monastery too ascetic, academic theological studies too dry, Hasidism too restrictive; in other words, every faith she tries soon turns out to be too hot or too cold. Where's the religion that's just right for Sharon?

Goodman, who wrote about the vicissitudes of a hilariously neurotic clan in "The Family Markowitz" and the challenges of Orthodox Jewish life in "Kaaterskill Falls," has picked a tricky row to hoe in "Paradise Park." Sharon's Candide-like dizzyness makes her immediately amusing and endearing, and it's a delight to see Goodman flexing her considerable gift for humor again after the relatively solemn "Kaaterskill Falls." The beginning of the book is a deliciously frothy and eminently readable concoction, replete with sly slices of hippie life (pot farms, weeklong acid trips, communal households, a Buddhist monk who keeps slipping back into his old, uptight New Yorker self, rampant hugging) that never stoops to cheap sneers. Goodman makes her questing heroine naive but not actually stupid, with enough of the smart aleck (comparing the women in a Hasidic retreat to the schoolgirls in the Madeline picture books, for example) to make her irresistible as well as maddening. And Sharon's yearnings are genuine enough, egged on by the (very) occasional glimpses she catches of the infinite.

But like that friend (we all know at least one) who ardently embraces one new enthusiasm after the other, only to cast it aside when she realizes she hasn't found the ultimate answer, Sharon can be a little wearing. Her encounters with each new religious practice get a tad too predictable toward the late middle of "Paradise Park," and that's when Goodman steps up to bat to bring her exasperating heroine home. OK, so the resolution, if you know Goodman's fiction, is hardly surprising, but as another book critic I know put it, even a not-quite top-notch Allegra Goodman novel is so much better than most other writers' best efforts, why kvetch? "Paradise Park" is such a pleasure to read, with so many clever, astute touches (Sharon's letters to her disapproving father are small masterpieces of histrionics, outright lies, manipulation and smothered pleas for love) that to look any farther for a book to recommend for March would make me feel as fickle as Sharon herself.

-- Laura Miller

Border Crossing by Pat Barker

Psychological insight is the lifeblood of good fiction, so it's surprising how few novelists make their characters professional psychologists. Pat Barker is an exception. In her wonderful, masterful "Regeneration" trilogy ("Regeneration," "The Eye in the Door" and "The Ghost Road"), set during World War I, she imagined the life and work of a real historical figure, William Rivers, a British psychologist charged with the excruciatingly ironic task of helping shellshocked soldiers regain their mental health in order to return to the fighting. As Rivers tried to figure out how to help his patients he often found himself at the crossroads of science and morality -- the proper destination, these razor-sharp but humane books suggested, of any psychological inquiry.

In "Border Crossing," set in present-day northern England, Barker again looks at the dilemmas of a psychologist working with people whose troubled mental functioning has grave social implications. Her protagonist, Tom Seymour, specializes in "youthful offenders" -- children who kill. As the novel opens, he and his wife are out for a walk, trying to salvage their unraveling connection, when they see an apparently suicidal young man jump into a dangerous river. Tom leaps in and saves him. In an apparent coincidence, he turns out to be Danny Miller, at whose trial Tom had been an expert witness 13 years earlier. Danny was accused of smothering an elderly neighbor when she'd unexpectedly come home and found him robbing her house. Tom's testimony made the difference in convicting Danny of the crime -- he'd determined that Danny was aware of what he was doing and knew that death was permanent. The 10-year-old was sentenced to a reform school for juvenile offenders.

Now 23, Danny is on parole and has a new identity, but he's haunted by his past. He asks Tom to begin seeing him so that they can sort out what happened on the day the murder took place. Their free-form sessions -- Tom decides that because of the circumstances they won't be a formal therapy arrangement -- cause Tom to reopen the question of whether Danny should have been held responsible for the murder. Restless and out of sorts over the foundering of his marriage, Tom decides to track down the early players in Danny's story and talk to them. He also has to once again come to terms with the strange effect on him of the strikingly good-looking and intelligent Danny, a master manipulator who craves control at all costs and is expert at inducing authority figures to cross boundaries. But does being a bottomless pit of emotional need make Danny dangerous, or beyond rehabilitation? That's the kind of morally nuanced question Barker specializes in, and in "Border Crossing" she answers it without passing judgment on Danny or reaching for any falsely reassuring certainty.

One of the ideas Barker wants to convey is that violence tends to occur under particular kinds of circumstances, and that this is especially true -- and especially tragic -- in the case of violent children. As Danny recounts for Tom his early childhood, spent being beaten and bullied by a drunken father and depressive mother, it's all too clear how his need for control emerged in murderous form. At one point Tom, too, has a flashback of a scene from his own relatively safe and happy childhood, in which, given too much leeway with an annoying younger boy, he found himself on the edge of committing an evil act. Evil, Tom comes to realize, is not metaphysical, and its perpetrators can still merit therapeutic care. "Evil" is "just the word we've agreed to use to describe certain kinds of action," he tells Danny. "And I don't think it's an alternative to other ways of describing the same things. There's no logical reason why 'mad' and 'bad' should be alternatives."

Let me say that "Border Crossing" isn't Barker at her best -- it's not half as good as any of the "Regeneration" books. (If you haven't yet, give yourself a treat and read them.) At times there's a phoned-in quality to the writing, as if she's rushing to make points rather than structure scenes. She seems impatient with her own story; too often, she sums up or, worse, leaves out crucial connecting points. Still, there's a palpable excitement to reading "Border Crossing." Partly that's due to Barker's suspenseful plot -- we're never sure whether Danny is a danger to Tom -- but it's also simply exhilarating to read Barker's vigorous, precise prose. Few writers manage to be so tough-minded, so ruthlessly honest and so compassionate at the same time. And characteristically, she has taken on a crucially important subject, one that sends lesser minds lunging for oversimplified answers.

It's also more than a little sobering to read "Border Crossing" in a nation like ours, in which a 14-year-old was recently tried as an adult and given a life sentence with no possibility of parole for killing another child when he was just 12 years old. In England and most other developed nations, such condemnation of a still-developing child would be unthinkable. Barker's story may hinge on the specifics of the British legal system, but her willingness to probe the moral questions raised by children who murder seems even more pertinent to ours right now.

-- Maria Russo

My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain

There's blood coursing through the sentences of Nuala O'Faolain's "My Dream of You." Whatever flaws can be charged to this big, messy, imperfect and enthralling novel -- a shadow plot that is at times too oblique or too obvious, secondary characters who sometimes verge on the "colorful," a first novelist's tendency to spell out her meanings rather than trust the reader to discover them, the occasional conflict between commercial and literary impulses -- it is never less than alive. "My Dream of You" draws you in and stirs you up. With the emotional savagery that seems the special province of Irish writers, O'Faolain lays her protagonist bare and puts you right into her consciousness. You feel this book in your flesh.

Admirers of O'Faolain's bestselling memoir "Are You Somebody?" may be disappointed to find that some of its material has been loosely reworked for the novel. "My Dream of You" doesn't feel recycled, though, for the simple reason that it's a bigger book, a more ambitious one. It doesn't have the control or the concision of that picaresque memoir. And that's exactly as it should be. The book is about the unruly, inconvenient persistence of passion as played out on the landscape of the unruly and inconvenient middle-aged body. Neither of those subjects lends itself to a pretty, minimalist polish. O'Faolain is writing here about the emotional life of one woman, but she goes down so deep that the subject has an improbable heft. She's a long way from the mastery of her countrywoman Edna O'Brien, but she displays something of O'Brien's reckless courage at plunging into the whorls of love.

The heroine, Kathleen de Burca, is a travel writer nearing 50, an Irishwoman living in London, who has winnowed down her existence to the co-workers in her tiny office, her meticulous, fussing boss, Alex, and particularly her fellow writer, Jimmy, a gay American, an expat like herself and something of a soul mate. Moving from the cocoon of her dark basement flat to her job, she's a perpetual tourist in life. As the book opens, Jimmy suddenly dies and Kathleen is shocked into realizing how long she has coasted comfortably. Announcing her retirement from travel writing, Kathleen goes back to Ireland for the first time in 30 years with the idea of researching the real story behind a famous love affair -- between an English landlord's wife and her Irish servant -- that occurred during the famine.

What follows is, of course, about Kathleen confronting her own heritage and learning to open herself to life again. But O'Faolain is such a full-hearted and full-bodied writer that it doesn't feel like too-familiar territory. She has an unexpected way of complicating the issues she raises. Many of the best passages deal with Kathleen's affair with a man she meets on her holiday, an Irishman a few years her elder, whose adoration helps her reconcile the sexual desire she has never ceased to feel with her own body, which is settling into the unwanted folds and expanses of middle age. No writer I know has come up with a scene like the one in which Kathleen examines the red mark left by her lover suckling her breast and remembers how, in order to be more gentle, he took out his dentures beforehand.

O'Faolain cuts through the cant of writing about middle age, which tends to insist only on either the comfort or the decay. And she does the same with old age. In one remarkable passage, an elderly librarian she befriends during her research says, of John Bayley's book about his wife, Iris Murdoch, "I read her husband's book about caring for her in her declining years. I must say I envied her both the Alzheimer's and the caring husband until I realized that if she had the one she didn't know she has the other." When Kathleen tells her that she's the first person she ever met who envied someone with Alzheimer's, the woman responds, "Oh no, Miss de Burca ... I think any reasonable person would envy those who lose their memory as they approach the end."

The memories that Kathleen confronts of her troubled relationship with her father are so painful that the prospect of losing them does seem like a blessing. But O'Faolain doesn't offer Kathleen that easy an out. In a way, "My Dream of You" springs from the afterword to O'Faolain's memoir, where she talks about letting go of self-pity. In the end, Kathleen sees her pain balanced by the pain of the other people around her. The result is a book that's both intimate and remarkably un-self-centered, a tough-minded and passionate tribute to the ache that tells you you're alive.

-- Charles Taylor

Martyr's Crossing by Amy Wilentz

At first glance, Amy Wilentz's "Martyr's Crossing" seems set up to embody, in one grand, sweeping tale, much of the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her choice of characters implies this: the handsome Israeli solider; the young, beautiful Palestinian mother; the calculating and patriotic Israeli old-timer; the angry, imprisoned Palestinian terrorist; and of course, at the center of it all, the child martyr. As the novel begins, these familiar figures stand poised to represent all the predictable sides of the story that they do on the evening news.

But it soon becomes clear that Wilentz has a more subtle, and complicated, story to tell. From the beautifully shaded opening scene in which a Palestinian mother tries to get her gravely ill child across an Israeli checkpoint, "Martyr's Crossing" unravels like a series of snapshots of interior life under great personal discord. Wilentz animates small, resonant moments -- the gossip in an Israeli cafe, the folding of a dead child's laundry, the gross vanity of an old Palestinian leader. Certainly, there are grand statements: Watching her father lying on his deathbed, Marina Raad, an American-born Palestinian who had returned to her romanticized origins, concludes that "we were all victims of history." Yet "history" serves less as a foundation for the story and more as worn scenery for people engaged in distinct struggles in a beloved, wretched homeland.

It's not an easy task to avoid stereotypes with this material, considering that the novel also conveys the harsh reality that it's all too easy for these characters to fall prey to their own illusions about what it means to be Israeli or Palestinian. Yizhar, an Israeli official responsible for putting a positive news spin on the actions of the Israeli army, imagines his country as "a rogue nation riding roughshod over others, trampling norms and shoving aside accepted wisdom. Small but scrappy." After his grandchild dies at the hands of Israeli soldiers, George Raad, an ailing Palestinian intellectual, pays a visit to his childhood house, which is now occupied by an Israeli family he once knew. As George grapples with his memories, he hears an insistent inner voice: "You have to pay some price for taking away my land and living in my house for fifty years and for eternity." It's as if what George experiences is more a reflex of reassurance than a reassertion of truth. The moment comes off as somehow both surprising and painfully obvious, as do many of Wilentz's sharp depictions of intricately layered pain.

The novel's success owes much to Wilentz's judicious crafting and her familiarity with the region. (She was the New Yorker's Jerusalem correspondent between 1995 and 1997.) At the end of "Martyr's Crossing," when the Israeli soldier stumbles into, of all places, a mosque, and George watches his life pass before him in, of all places, an Israeli hospital, it's a potentially predictable move to have the characters end up in the hands of their perceived enemy. But in Wilentz's masterful deployment of multiple characters tumbling toward a thrilling finale, their individual fates manage to seem like mere coincidences of geography. Or maybe it's that the first 300 pages of her book have already convinced the reader how inextricably tangled, like tree roots smothered in sidewalk cement, the fates of the Palestinians and the Israelis really are.

-- Suzy Hansen

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