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The Woman Who Escaped From Shame by Toby Olson (Random House: $16.95; 325 pp.)

May 18, 1986|Holly Prado | Prado's novel "Gardens" was published last fall by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. and

What a book! Toby Olson takes on almost everything that a work of fiction can bear. The narrative is an action-adventure story, complete with cliffhangers and chases, but that's only the beginning. The novel weaves its way through complexities of mythology; the enigmas of women, including a wonderful, feminine horse that leads the major character, Paul, into and out of his adventure; philosophical excursions into storytelling itself; explorations of the conflict between natural sexuality and pornography; attempts to understand the soul of Mexico; and a strange family secret that only comes clear at the end of it all.

Olson has a gift for intertwining good old American love of clear-cut right and wrong with a darker, less certain vision. Paul enters Mexico, a country that's offered him unsolved mysteries in the past, and suddenly finds himself rescuing a small mare--dog-size, a legendary breed--from a cruel involvement with makers of pornographic films. The horse leaps a barrier, wounds herself, and in that moment she decides Paul's fate. He treats the wound, then discovers that he can't give her up, has to follow her to her origins--and his own.

Respect for the intelligence of the horse, for nature itself, makes Paul a particularly sensitive hero and moves the book away from one-dimensional action into fable. Coincidences and magical meetings occur regularly. Symbols of water, moon, the horse deepen the resonances of the story.

Olson has written several books of poetry, as well as a novel, "Seaview," which won the 1983 P.E.N./Faulkner Prize. He has a poet's love of language. His descriptions are intensely powerful. Some are unnecessarily gruesome. Others are simply too long. There's an argument between the irresistible lure of language and devotion to straightforward purposes--after all, this is an adventure tale. But it would be a great loss to omit certain scenes that are undeniably brilliant.

In both action novels and myths, the hero emerges victorious--bruised and scarred, usually, like Paul, but with the glory of defeating the villain or gaining a treasure. This kind of ending is especially satisfying here, because Paul is engaged in a struggle that many of us share--a quest for self-knowledge and the desire to live closely with one's own instinct, to refuse to be demeaned by cruel misuse of what is natural and true. The moment of joy after the climactic, redemptive battle is much worth waiting for: "Then he saw Johnny's arm come up, saw the sombrero rise, and heard him call out. The hat went very high, and when it reached its peak it seemed to hang there, free of everything, in the pure sunlight. He pulled his hand away from Parker's neck and got to his feet. He raised his own arm then, and turned his blood-soaked hand palm out and waved it at them."

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