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BOOK REVIEW : Love, Politics Intertwine in Wry Romance : CLEOPATRA'S SISTER by Penelope Lively HarperCollins: $20, 282 pages

May 28, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The temptation to call this the Liveliest of the author's 10 novels is irresistible. Ironic, droll and wryly romantic, "Cleopatra's Sister" manages to turn a traveler's nightmare into an answered prayer.

Lucy Faulkner is a brisk, no-nonsense journalist who has accepted an assignment to write a travel piece on Callimbia, a politically unstable country on the northern coast of Africa. She's traded the security of a regular public affairs column on a national English newspaper for the precarious existence of a free-lance writer, a choice that means saying yes to an offer that will pay the bills on her new condo.

Although there are a couple of short-lived relationships in her past, after the most recent one ends, she finds herself far too busy to embark upon another. When the novel opens, Lucy is the New Woman of the '90s--free, independent, unattached and content to remain so, at least for the time being.

Howard Beamish is a 36-year-old paleontologist, a bachelor living with a woman who no longer interests him. A research trip to Nairobi to investigate some newly discovered fossils seems like the perfect opportunity to end his deteriorating connection with Vivian, one for which he never had much enthusiasm in the first place, but paleontology is not the sort of profession in which office romance flourishes.

Howard has been restive for some time, but he found the courage to end the affair only when Vivian began harping on marriage.

For both Howard and Lucy, Callimbia is merely a fly-over on the way to Nairobi. Readers begin to suspect it might become something more when the author treats us to a brief but thorough history of the place, hypothesizing a mention in Herodotus, a thriving agricultural history involving vines, olives and millet and a national heroine who was Cleopatra's long-lost sister, Berenice.

Throughout its long and checkered fictional past, Callimbia has been subjected to Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other influences, and its current ruler is a despot named Omar, who has declared himself pesident, chief of police and supreme commander of the armed forces, on or about the day Lucy Faulkner, Howard Beamish and a full planeload of tourists, returning Callimbians and businessmen booked their flights.

The son of an English woman and a dashing Callimbian soldier, Omar turned out to be a nasty piece of work, becoming known quite early for "insubordination, deviousness and a capacity for violence which disturbed even his superiors, who were in the business of producing fighting men." Picture an Arafat type with a good barber and an Italian tailor: presentable but utterly ruthless.

Lucy, Howard and their widely assorted traveling companions are dozing their way across land masses and the Mediterranean when their captain's voice intrudes to inform them that the plane will make an unscheduled stop in Callimbia because of engine trouble.

Disembarked, the passengers are separated by nationality, British subjects herded into a "lounge" in which molded plastic seats make lounging impossible. When a cart appears with soft drinks and snacks, the more sophisticated travelers brace themselves for a long delay.

By then, Howard and Lucy have met and exchanged some casual banter. A few uncomfortable hours later, the group is packed into a van and driven past a string of seaside hotels, but the van doesn't stop until it reaches a desolate concrete compound.

Matters will go from bad to worse within the next few days, allowing the author to establish scenarios offering superb opportunities to satirize the politics of emerging--or receding--nations, as well as offering the perfect setting for an examination of the British character under acute stress.

Shifted from one holding pen to another, denied contact with their consulate, fed sporadically and told nothing useful for several days, the group is eventually informed that the British government has refused to repatriate some Callimbian nationalists who have opposed the coup and fled to England. The travelers are hostages and will remain in Callimbian limbo until an accord is reached.

Although Lively's light touch enhances the situation, she doesn't attempt to neutralize it. We're amused and entertained, but our delight is tinged with an increasing frisson of discomfort, a dimension that makes "Cleopatra's Sister" a special sort of diversion.

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