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MADELEINE'S WORLD: A Child's Journey From Birth to Age Three. By Brian Hall . Houghton Mifflin: 262 pp., $20

December 07, 1997|BILL McCOY | Bill McCoy is the author of "Father's Day: Notes From a New Dad in the Real World" (Times Books)

Brian Hall no doubt received the advice all new parents get when they start crowing about Samantha's first steps or Zachary's particularly telling insight at the dinner table: "You ought to write these things down." He has done just that, with a vengeance.

In "Madeleine's World," however, Hall's aim is more ambitious than simply to record milestones, poignant moments and adorable stories from his daughter's first three years of life. He means to write an interior biography from her perspective, to wrap in a grown-up's context the voyage from the free-fall of birth to the first sparks of preschooler reason--that is, Madeleine's innate belief "that her brain could confront the entire cosmos; that it could contain it."

Because Hall is an accomplished novelist ("The Dreamers," "The Saskiad") and travel writer ("The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia"), this enterprise can be seen on one level as a serious attempt to explore and explain a child's world from the inside. On another, it's a glorious excuse for a dad to talk about his kid. Viewed from that perspective, reading "Madeleine's World" is a lot like listening to any parent--albeit one who is remarkably sympathetic and articulate--expound on the spellbinding topic of his offspring. Hall stuns with his observational powers and emotional truth, and sometimes he's simply way more interested in the subject than we are.

Predictably, the most troublesome part of the book is in the early chapters: Infants don't have much going in the way of consciousness, so Hall is forced to interpret her cryptic signals in ways that unintentionally tell us more about his all-consuming need to process Madeleine's experiences than it does about the child herself. When he notes that "by four months [she] was never putting anything in her mouth except the breast, the pacifier, and her own fist, which presumably did not highlight so painfully the subject-object division," I was seized by the desire to pass some smelling salts under the writer's nose to snap him out of it.

But just when his bent for erecting theoretical castles around basic infant instincts seems in danger of spinning out of control, along comes a startlingly lucid (and often quite funny) perception. No parent, for instance, will ever have the same perspective on retrieving those objects constantly jettisoned from the high chair to the floor at mealtime after reading Hall's take on the subject: "Would we return them? We would. Would we come across the room to do it? We would. Would we do it again and again? This was good science, a graduated series of tests, a determination of the parameters of natural laws."

Once Madeleine embarks upon the twin endeavors of mobility and language, you'd expect the book to perk up. Not quite yet. Hall, who has clearly had a chummy relationship with his old linguistics textbooks, lingers at worrying length over the glacial process that leads from gibberish to articulate speech. Granted, his skill at pinpointing the connections between his daughter's emerging consciousness and her various object identifications, coinages and mispronunciations are unquestionably impressive and occasionally illuminating. However, I could easily do without knowing the full catalog of Madeleine's terminology for all the chairs in the house or the order in which she learned the names for colors, or that her "no" came out sounding like the Norwegian "nej" because "for some reason she had trouble reproducing the long O." This is the sort of material that loses most of its impact when the child in question isn't yours.

But in its second half, the book really blossoms--much as toddlers do, in fact, as their increasing mastery of the world makes it clear they're fully vested citizens. As his relationship with his daughter passes through specimen-observer and teacher-pupil stages and becomes one between parent and child (a relationship that includes the previous elements of observation and teaching, granted, but is something altogether more convoluted and interesting), Hall's prose becomes less clinical, more relaxed and affectionate. Madeleine makes a welcome transition from test case to child. He makes remarkably fresh, pithy and irrefutable asides, as when he notes the way toddlers incorporate their fear of abandonment into their play with adults: "The chasing game kids love is a pure draft of reassurance that they can't get away from us even if they try."

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