There is a line running from Richard Hughes' "A High Wind in Jamaica," a story of the chilly transformation of a band of children aboard a pirate ship, to William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," a story of a band of boys declining into savagery on an island, to Marianne Wiggins' "John Dollar."
It is a line of magic, one that grows steadily darker. The story of eight girls marooned on an island off Burma is all but unbearable in its horror, the more so, because its beauty leaves us almost without defenses.
It is hard to convey the oblique and unexpected rhythms of "John Dollar." It begins with a strange discord. Down from a bleak hillside farm in Cornwall, an aged woman of Indian nationality leads a donkey bearing the body of a still older Englishwoman. In the village, the Indian, who calls herself Monkey, seeks burial for her companion. A priest turns her away. That night, sneaking into the cemetery, she buries the body herself.
Immediately, the story shifts back to its other end, 60 years earlier. Charlotte, the dead woman, is a young widow who takes up a teaching post in the British colony in Rangoon. She is sensitive and sensual. She despises the stuffy, narrow-minded colonial world. She wears Burmese costume, haunts the city's streets and processions, and becomes the lover of a hard-worn but well-read sailor, John Dollar.
To celebrate a royal birthday, the colony organizes an expedition to an island in the Andaman Sea, off Burma. They will camp on the island, named by Marco Polo "Proscribed Hopes," and rename it for King George.
It will be an English sort of trip: lots of provisions and paraphernalia, campfires and tea, a 21-shot revolver salute, "God Save the King" sung by the women, and organized activities. And suddenly, the fragile civility crumbles.
Thousands of sea turtles swim ashore the first night to lay eggs. Something about the moonlit spectacle drives the camping party berserk. Men and boys begin savagely smashing the eggs. Next morning, with the air strangely still, Charlotte and John, who have come on one boat with eight of her girl pupils, row over to a second boat.
No one is aboard; only the gory remains of some unspeakable carnage. And at that moment, an earthquake hits the island and a tidal wave engulfs the ship.
It is another abrupt shift. Eight girls lie like sodden packages on the beach, amid the wreckage of their boat. They seem to be the only survivors until two days later, exploring, they find John, near dead and paralyzed from the waist down.
A primitive society takes form, with Nollie and Amanda, the oldest girls, as leaders. John, when he regains consciousness, gives some direction, but his physical helplessness puts his authority in uncertain balance with the growing wildness of the girls.
Still another transformation takes place. In a series of grotesque scenes, told at a chilly distance that augments the horror, several boatloads of cannibals appear, carrying the girls' fathers. The children, hidden with John, watch them cook and eat their prisoners.
A final balance shifts. The precarious society disintegrates; the children divide into savages and victims. Eventually, with more killings and cannibalism, John and seven of the children perish. The eighth, Monkey, finds Charlotte, who has survived on another part of the island. They are rescued, and we come back through darkness to the initial dark scene, whose mysteries are now resolved.
All this conveys only part of the book's strangeness and menace, and almost none of its allure. Wiggins, author of an extraordinary collection of short stories, "Herself in Love," is a writer whose effects move from disconcert to dismay to enchantment.
Sometimes, she seems to limp. Sometimes, you are certain she is limping badly. John Dollar seems more maiden's prayer than man. Charlotte's initiation into the sensuous atmosphere of the Far East is pretty enough, but not particularly original. A scene where a band of dolphins swims her around a lake is a magician's effect, not real magic.
The magic comes, though. Limping turns into dancing. Wiggins' sentences become incantations in which each word is placed precisely and without possibility of alteration. Out of them come all kinds of terrifying, comical and heartbreaking apparitions.
In one of the book's most remarkable sections, we meet the girls, one by one, in their Rangoon homes. As brief scene succeeds brief scene, we see the terrible distortion of their parents' arid colonial lives, the children's sorrowful vulnerability, and the sparks of myth and misapprehension that flicker in and out of their innocence.
No better writing is being done nowadays. And it fashions a kind of golden backlight for the terrible and savage scenes that will come later. The children in "Lord of the Flies" may have been as dark; they were never as lovely.
The innocence makes the horror all the more unbearable. The scenes in which the child victims die, one by one and alone, manage to convey some essential part of each child's nature, as if death, too, were character.
At the end, Monkey assists Charlotte in burying the remains of John, Nollie and Amanda. Charlotte has gone mad from what she has just seen. (I will not reveal it here.) Nevertheless, she repeats some scraps from the Anglican burial service.
Monkey, the outsider and perhaps the most innocent of all the children, echoes her. She gets the words a little wrong and yet, in a way, just right. It is as if a dying English ceremony were being returned to the air and liberated into some wider future.
"Say after me: 'Earth to earth ashes to ashes.'
" 'Ashes. Two ashes,' Monkey had said.
" 'Dust to dust.'
" 'A Dust. Two dusts.'
" 'As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end.'
" 'Without end,' Monkey said."