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Book Review : A Schizophrenic Tale: Fable or Satire?

November 17, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Our Father by Bernice Rubens (Delacorte Press: $16.95; 212 pages)

Daughter of a mountaineer, granddaughter of a spelunker, Veronica Smiles carries on the matriarchal tradition by traversing Arabian deserts, returning to her suburban house only to write about her experiences. While Grandmother and Mummy left complaisant husbands and lonely tots behind, Veronica leaves no one. She's a spinster and an orphan, the last of her intrepid line, and from all appearances, content with her single state until she meets God during one of her Sahara expeditions.

On that first encounter, God merely remarks that they may be in for a sandstorm, though in subsequent appearances, he quotes from some of His best prose stylists. Veronica is neither particularly surprised nor disconcerted by the visitation. A woman traveling alone across the desert becomes inured to illusions. Only two things have the power to scare Veronica: the locked third drawer in her bureau, which holds all the secrets of her life, and men, of whom she has no experience, having always regarded them as "peripheral, much as she viewed cut flowers or haute couture."

With that promising beginning, you'd have every right to expect a romantic adventure story, but "Our Father" is both considerably more and less than that. The novel is more in the sense that the brushes with God continue at increasingly frequent intervals; less because we never hear a word about the wonders of the desert where Veronica has spent the greatest part of her adult life. As consolation, there is a romance. On the train home to Surbiton after her current adventure, Veronica meets a charming and handsome bachelor, Edward Boniface, who is instantly smitten by her brisk direct manner, so different from the vapid post-debs who make up his usual social circle. The timing couldn't be better.

Recently Veronica has been thinking about motherhood, though she seems to have only the most abstract notion of how she can achieve that goal. Edward Boniface seems to offer a possible avenue. When he promises to call her, she arranges a party and invites him. Her married friends all approve heartily of this unexpected turn towards conventionality, especially after they meet the urbane Edward. Veronica also asks her other new friend, God, to the party, but He doesn't appear until after the rest of the guests have left. By then God sounds more like himself, mentioning that the time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. As a parting shot, He thunders "The Lord thy God is a jealous God," reminding Veronica that no one trifles with the Almighty.

Thereafter God appears to Veronica in a multitude of guises, arriving bidden and unbidden. Simultaneously the romance with Edward Boniface progresses apace, gradually picking up momentum. On their first real rendezvous at a Soho restaurant, Edward tells her that a case of mumps at 18 left him sterile, but "only sterile." Not knowing exactly how to interpret this information, though well aware that it could have an adverse effect upon her desire to have a child, Vernica allows herself to be swept along by Edward's enthusiasm. God seems to approve of the match, and Veronica and Edward are married; the wedding preceded by an event so crucial to the plot that to divulge it would seriously compromise the ensuing drama.

In her 13th novel, Rubens balances precariously on a tightrope stretched between satire and parable, wavering only when she's negotiating the dangerous territory in the center. There the plot dips dangerously, and the author is obliged to wave the parasol of psychology, never entirely recovering her equilibrium. Rubens sends Veronica back to the family house to unlock that terrifying third bureau drawer and one by one, face the buried secrets of her childhood, secrets far too dreadful for the elegantly lighthearted mood so far established.

Veronica's predicament suddenly becomes no laughing matter; Veronica herself an altogether different person from the appealing and unworldly scholar of whom we've become so fond. Abruptly, the circus act turns into a genuine tragedy, and God, who had seemed such a benevolent presence, becomes His vengeful Old Testament self. Though we can't say we weren't warned, the omens were too slight to suggest the wrath in store.

"Our Father" is a novel with a split personality, the teasing opening sections and brittle sophisticated style at odds with an ultimately solemn and labored inquiry into Veronica's tormented psyche.

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