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October 11, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

TRIAGE. By Scott Anderson (Scribner: 240 pp., $23)

Mark bugs me. He's a freelance combat photographer, one of those cowboys addicted to war zones, not one for words. Hard on girls, trades stories with other photographers over beers, wears black. Do Not Disturb sign hung around his neck. On its flip side in small letters: Please Risk Everything You Are To Try To Figure Me Out Because I Sure As Hell Can't Do It. His confusion, upon returning from Kurdistan, where he received an artillery shell in his skull, is what drives this thrilling novel. What happened to his best friend Colin, who was there with him and whose wife, back in New York, is about to have a baby? He struggles to repress this as he paces his New York loft. Mark's gracious, nonintrusive girlfriend, Elena, worries but does not push. It is her grandfather, who ran a rehab clinic for war criminals of the Spanish Civil War, who arrives from Spain to cure Mark and win his granddaughter's respect. "Pain is always preferable to numbness," says the Muslim doctor who first puts Mark back together in a cave in Kurdistan. A romantic idea, found only in books.

BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER'S SMILE. By Alice Walker (Random House: 222 pp., $22.95)

"There's not enough father!" say the two friends, Susannah and Irene, remembering the cry heard in fairy tales. Indeed, Susannah's father has gone to heaven, an angel now, looking down on his daughter--not the one he worried the most about, but Susannah, the one whose love he lost when he beat her sister for sleeping with a village boy. Part fairy tale, part myth, written in at least two dimensions and across decades, this novel strangely conforms to and fulfills a reader's need for wisdom. It's an eight-ball of a novel--ask it a question and an enigmatic little answer will appear on the screen. Why do we let others shape our lives for us? Is a woman who loves women likelier to be happy? How do you get out from under the memories that make you weak?

NAMAKO: Sea Cucumber. By Linda Watanabe McFerrin (Coffee House Press: 256 pp., $14.95)

"For a while," says Ellen, remembering the year she turned 9 and her family moved to Japan, "almost every word that came out of my mouth was a lie." "Namako" is a novel about a child's virgin dance with the truth, with lies and with secrets. Each new violation of trust is like a footprint on the tundra, refining the way the child walks through life. It begins when she catches her father in an affair and reveals the affair to her mother. The punishment for telling the truth is the family's sudden move to Japan, where Ellen's mother, Sara, grew up. Reminiscent of Susan Minot's "Monkeys," the novel moves through various family episodes in which sibling relationships are formed and broken and re-formed. Secrets are kept, traded upon and revealed, leaving their keepers dangerously brittle and permanently vulnerable. The sea cucumber in formaldehyde that Ellen steals from her biology teacher, an animal named for a vegetable, is full of secrets. It doesn't seem right, she thinks, watching her strong, silent grandmother dying, "for living things to pass silently from existence with their secrets still locked up inside them."

THE STAR FACTORY. By Ciaran Carson (Arcade: 296 pp., $23.95)

Here is Ciaran Carson's Belfast: "a kettle steaming on the hob, the cast-iron mincer clamped to the deal table," "dryads" that "murmur from within the trees, and moths [that] flit through the dappled moonshine, trembled by a zephyr." There are headlights bouncing off the "gravestones and blank stone eyes of archangels in an orchestra of random constellated Morse" in the Milltown cemetery, a childhood of "kick the tin," "tig" and "hide-and-seek," an education in which, "after seven consecutive wrongs . . . a boy would be entitled to sixty-four slaps." "The Star Factory" is a collection of Carson's random meditations on the city he grew up in, in which he learned the story of the haunted star factory--an abandoned mill that produced boys' clothing. The city was the birthplace of the Titanic, his storytelling father's town. It is, he tells us as he wanders through it, "the fractious epic that is Belfast."

EAST INTO UPPER EAST. By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Counterpoint: 272 pp., $24)

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