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FICTION : ELLEN FOSTER by Kaye Gibbons (Algonquin: $11.95; 146 pp.).

August 16, 1987|Sharon Dirlam

This is the first novel of a young North Carolina writer who tells her tale through the voice of an 11-year-old girl. It's a bold decision for a story populated with characters who are grim, evil and indifferent.

The child's voice is clear, simple and altogether honest. Her attitude is healthy and hopeful even though fate burdens her with a mother who kills herself, an incestuous father, a vindictive grandmother and a series of selfish substitute parents. "I figure I made out pretty good considering the rest of my family is either dead or crazy," Ellen notes. But the voice has odd lapses: making small grammatical errors, such as "I have a odd shape," or seeming not to realize that "the man who comes to talk to me at school every Tuesday" is a psychiatrist.

Perhaps these lapses are imposed to keep the voice childlike. They are minor interferences. The narration is graphic and dramatic, and that curiously dry and distant child's voice lingers after the story ends.

In a secondary plot, the child talks about her relationship with her only friend, a black girl, in terms that seem jarringly anachronistic. Yet, the setting is the present, and the author was born in 1960. One is reminded that change is relative and that each life struggles anew to come to terms with how to think.

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