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Book Review

Third Novel Continues Late Author's Unfinished Saga

July 24, 1986|MARY DRYDEN | Dryden is an actress and free-lance writer. and

Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West (Viking: $16.95)

"Cousin Rosamund," at the time of the author's death in 1983, consisted of half a manuscript detailing the third section of what was originally intended as a saga in four parts. At the request of Rebecca West's publishers and with the permission of her estate, "Cousin Rosamund" was completed by West's secretary, novelist Diana Stainforth, who drew on massive synopses left by the author.

"Cousin Rosamund" continues the story of the Aubrey family in the earlier part of the 20th Century. In particular, it deals with the coming of age of twin concert pianists Rose and Mary and their beloved cousin Rosamund. Though well born, the family has suffered financial upsets. The uneasy balance between the corruption of wealth and the power of love constitutes the theme of the novel.

Rose and Mary, along with their sister, Cordelia, and brother, Richard Quin, have been reared primarily by their mother. In this largely feminine household, the twin prodigies are understandably confused in terms of their own sexuality.

As artists, they have intimate knowledge of the diversity of human relationships: They move in the rarefied atmosphere of musicians and composers where sexual aberration is common. Their lack of personal experience, however, protects them from even the most casual suitor.

Their abandonment by their father, the deaths of their mother (from illness) and brother in World War I, as well as their consequent alienation from Cordelia leave them no one but their cousin to truly admire. Rosamund becomes an icon to the twins.

Rosamund has always appeared otherworldly to Rose and to Mary. In the previous volume, "This Real Night," it was Rosamund who was closest to Richard Quin. They shared a sensitivity and a sensuality that bordered on saintliness. With Richard Quin's death, Rosamund somehow senses her similar, tragic destiny.

Rose and Mary are shocked when Rosamund suddenly marries a vulgar millionaire of dubious morals. They not only feel their cousin to be her husband's superior, they also see her as a spiritual healer. Why she has chosen to waste her time amid the excesses of such wealth as must disgust her is beyond their comprehension.

Rosamund's fate is delineated in the fourth volume that will never see print: She is to die in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II. But long before her actual demise, her cousins mourn the loss of her as though she were already dead.

West's readers will recognize her generous and original use of metaphor and simile. She describes a woman's religious faith as if she were "playing very loud on some spiritual instrument like a cornet."

Perhaps nobody listens much to cornets these days, but most of West's words remains as fresh as the day she put them on paper.

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