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COLLABORATORS by Janet Kauffman (Viking: $13.95; 131 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Laura Kalpakian | Kalpakian's latest novel, "These Latter Days," will appear in paperback (Pocket Books) this summer

Elegant, economical, evocative--these terms describe Janet Kauffman's short novel, "Collaborators," the story of a very special mother-daughter relationship. Narrated by the daughter, Dovie (whose real name, Andrea Doria, is taken from that of the ill-fated ship), the story takes place on a tobacco farm in a Mennonite community in the late 1960s.

None of the turmoil of that period touches this novel, which is ahistorical and revolves around the seasonal tasks dictated by the farm and the patterns of religious life imposed by the community. The problems of a larger society affect this family only insofar as their property is flanked by a prison, and the prison wall runs like a seam through the land and the novel itself.

The book spans the middle years of Dovie's childhood and from the opening scene with Dovie and her mother on the beach, the mother assumes the bulk of the novel. She is an imposing woman, "knuckled and ankled like other Mennonite women, constructed to break ground, to dig." Beside her mother, Dovie thinks herself "feeble." Small wonder--the mother imposes herself physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally upon the young girl. The mother is an absolutely magical woman. Not charming. Magical.

She lavishes her magic on Dovie, shares it with her, invests it in her and at that point in the novel when both Dovie and the reader are engulfed, the mother suffers a debilitating stroke. She is rendered speechless, partially paralyzed, "(goes) into whatever hiding there is when the world flies apart and scatters itself out of reach. She's on her own and she can't take me." Eventually the mother recovers the use of her body and her speech, but the magic has fled, buried perhaps, forever misplaced. Dovie herself is curiously lost; her mother can no longer remember the affectionate nickname and calls her daughter Andy.

FOR THE RECORD - Knopf Is Her Publisher
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 18, 1986 Home Edition Book Review Page 7 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
"Collaborators" by Janet Kauffman is being published by Alfred A. Knopf. The publisher was incorrectly identified in The Book Review on May 11.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Dovie struggles to maintain both her own original self and her memory of her mother's magic against increasingly difficult odds. The "recovered" woman becomes a stranger to her, disavows the past, retreats into conventional activities and, against the Mennonite pacifist codes, buys a gun to declare war on the groundhogs burrowing through her garden. In this struggle, the adolescent Dovie has few allies: Her brother and father are present in the novel, but not privy to the bond between mother and daughter; the family, friends and neighbors too stand outside this bond and cannot register its loss. Only her mother's dearest friend, a woman who has renounced the Mennonites and lives in France, can help; she writes to Dovie, and between them, they collaborate to preserve the memory of the woman they both love.

In some ways, the tragedy at the end of the book both frees and strengthens Dovie in her resolve not only to preserve her mother's magic, but to impart it to her own daughter in a short, moving coda.

"Collaborators" has the ring of a novel that may have begun as a poem. Kauffman spurns the novelist's clunky tools of conventionally rendered dialogue, action, scenic depiction in favor of the poet's reliance on brilliant, sustained metaphor, conduits of expression, emotion distilled into succinct expression. Occasionally, the poet's fine-tuning raises troublesome narrative questions. The young narrator, for instance, clearly has a child's eye and a child's vision, but the voice is that of an adult, the same voice that the mature Dovie has in the coda when talking to her own daughter. Still, the intimacy between Dovie and her mother percolates off these pages. The strength and the vivacity of their love, the perils of their struggle underscore the very nature of mother-daughter relationships and in that, "Collaborators" may be the perfect Mother's Day gift.

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