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IN BRIEF

Fiction

May 16, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS

LOVING DAUGHTERS by Olga Masters (W. W. Norton: $21.95; 320 pp.) We arrive in this 1984 novel, Olga Masters' first, much as the Rev. Colin Edwards arrives in Wyndham, an Australian farm village near Sydney, just after World War I. More characters crowd in, stamp their boots and introduce themselves than we can keep track of. And Masters' prose seems awkward to the point of barbarism, much as Wyndham itself seems to the English-bred Edwards.

We shouldn't cut short our visit, however. Masters' constant switches in point of view aren't lapses in technique but an effort to portray the whole community--and what a caldron of lust, envy, yearning, malice and grief Wyndham proves to be, beneath its lid of stoicism! After we give up trying to get Masters' sentences to scan, we come to appreciate the energy of her style and the freshness of her observations. She probes so directly into the hearts of her characters that--given the historical setting--we can't help thinking a little of D. H. Lawrence.

The main plot is a romantic triangle. Edwards attracts Enid and Una Herbert, daughters of a well-to-do farmer. He is attracted in return; in fact, he can hardly decide which to marry. Since Edwards, though handsome and kind-hearted, is a ditherer and a mama's boy, the groundwork has been laid for tragedy. Then Masters relents and grants us a happy ending. A sign of her detachment and control is that domestic Enid is just as strong a character as artistic Una. A sign of her originality is that the center of the novel is a newborn baby, an orphan, who does nothing but cry for food and affection but touches--and, in effect, judges--every other character.

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