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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Gripping Tale Suffused With Repressed Emotion, Loneliness : THE WEEKEND by Peter Cameron ; Farrar Straus Giroux $17, 241 pages

July 28, 1994|MICHAEL DORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like the late British novelist Barbara Pym, Peter Cameron has the rare ability to take an ordinary event, a period of time in which almost nothing ostensibly happens, and invest it with heart and significance.

The author of two collections of short fiction and the novel "Leap Year," Cameron might technically be classified as a minimalist, but there is nothing "minimal" about the welter of repressed emotion and loneliness that suffuses his new, expertly crafted book.

The story is simple enough: Lyle and his recent "romantic" involvement, Robert, visit Lyle's best friends, Marian and John and their strangely quiet baby, Roland, at their country home. John's deceased brother Tony was Lyle's lover for 10 years, and the weekend of the trip coincides with the first anniversary of Tony's death from AIDS. The small, well-drawn cast of supporting characters includes Laura Ponti, an aging glamorous expatriate who has rented a summer house nearby, her B-movie star daughter, Nina, and Nina's married boyfriend.

Of weekend guests, Laura muses, " . . . in a way it's so disturbing. To have someone for the weekend. They breeze in and disrupt everything, and before you can adjust they're gone"--and indeed, the visit is not a success. The long shadow of the past constantly intrudes upon the present, and a sharp tension permeates every encounter, no matter how casual.

Eventually Marian's prediction that Lyle and Robert's relationship won't last becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and each man and woman winds up painfully alone with thoughts and recriminations, private doubts and worry.

It is to Cameron's considerable credit that he makes us care deeply about these people, feel their hurts, embarrassments and hopes. The book reads quickly--a fascinating literary page-turner--and then sticks in the imagination. The basic situation is at once both common enough to be familiar and distinctive enough to be captivating.

Cameron possesses a talent for understated description, making us feel as if certain ordinary occurrences have rarely before been so well observed, a skill largely derived from an economic attention to telling detail. Here, for instance, he relates in a single passage practically all we need know about the relationship of John and Marian:

"John got up and walked to his side of the fence. 'What?' he said.

" 'Nothing,' said Marian. She kissed him, then lay her face on his shoulder. John extended his arms around her, but kept his hands in the air, for they were dirty, and Marian was dressed all in white. He kissed her neck, and then moved his mouth from her jaw to her shoulder. He kept his lips there, in the hollow above her collarbone. 'I love you,' he told her, because it was true and because he knew it was what she wanted to hear."

This subtle precision is effective when conveying a physical nuance--as in "beautiful faces usually become closed with awareness of their beauty, but Robert's was not. His face was like a gift he had not yet learned to withhold"--but it becomes truly powerful when applied to an abstract emotion.

"There are things you lose you do not get back," Lyle realizes at one point. "You cannot have them, ever again, except in the smudging carbon copy of memory. There are things that seem irreconcilable that you must find a way to reconcile with. The simple passage of days dulls the sharpness of the pain, but it never wears it out: what gets washed away in time gets washed away, and then you are left with a hard cold nub of something, an unlosable souvenir. A little china dachshund from the White Mountains. A shadow puppet from Bali . . . an ivory shoehorn from a four-star hotel in Zurich. And here, like a stone I carry everywhere, is a bit of someone's heart I saved from a journey I once made."

Marian, too, is analytical about her reactions to loss. "She thought: it's very difficult to memorialize the dead, to make a remembrance of them that is not an indulgence of your grief is almost impossible. And you will never have them again untainted by your sorrow, never think of them, or see them, with a clean flurry of feeling, but always with this grief, this sorrow, this selfish feeling of abandonment, which is more about you than about them. She hated feeling sorry for herself that Tony was dead."

"The Weekend" is a short book, but it's concise in the way of a poem or brilliant one-act play: each line, each word matters. We close the book not only knowing each complicated, "prickly" character better, but also more aware and appreciative of the intricate sculpture that underlies all human social arrangements.

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