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October 15, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE MEANS OF ESCAPE

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Houghton Mifflin: 128 pp., $23.95

If authors are fishermen, there are many points in the river to catch a story: when it happens, when it's remembered, when it's told and when it's finished. The first and last require the most restraint, the least artifice and the most faith in the reader and in the power of the story--in other words, grace. The middle two require the most imagination and the most manipulation in terms of plot. Penelope Fitzgerald, who died earlier this year at 83, catches most of her stories when they happen, and she must travel back in time, to 1663 or 1875 for example, to do so. Because her subject is almost always justice, she must keep a firm hand on the pen to tell her stories simply, without moralizing. Her characters are trod upon every which way. They are often children or working-class people treated thoughtlessly and cruelly by upper-class people. As Vermeer does, Fitzgerald invests her characters with a great deal of quiet dignity and inner light, the source of which is unspoken. In many of these stories, getting and keeping a job is the theme. In some, jobs are a means of escape from circumstances of birth; in others, characters transcend meaningless jobs with secret inner lives. In many, there are ghosts, a reminder that ghost stories have less to do with horror than they do with justice. "There is nothing really lasting, nothing that will endure, except the sincere expression of the actual conditions of life," a character derisively quotes a better man than himself. "Conditions in the potato patch, in the hayfield, at the washtub, in the open street!" This is what Fitzgerald captures in her writing, and why she will endure.

*

THE ATLANTIC SOUND

By Caryl Phillips

Alfred A. Knopf: 282 pp., $26

If anyone ever tells you there's only one human story, laugh right in his face. It's a theory that makes commercialization easier, but it's the very seed of stupidity, pretending to lead to a lovely oneness; instead, it leads to judgment and moralizing, inside and outside. Caryl Phillips, born in the West Indies but raised from early childhood in England, examines the Atlantic slave trade from three points of the triangle: England, where glass, iron and other goods were loaded in Liverpool; Africa, where the goods were traded for slaves; and South Carolina, where the slaves were traded for plantation crops. Phillips travels to 1990s Liverpool, where the crops such as tobacco and cotton created a wealthy merchant class. In a city with a new reputation for multiracial harmony, Phillips finds a town that tries to forget but suffers from the legacy of slavery. He travels to the Elmina castle on the coast of Ghana, where slaves were held before the middle passage, for a Panfest, a festival for African people all over the world, part of the Back to Africa movement, of which Phillips is more than a little skeptical. Then, to Charlestown, S.C., where he searches for the "pest houses" where slaves were prepared for sale and researches the life of Judge Waties Waring, an early supporter of civil rights. Phillips tells many stories about slavery in this book, and he has a knack for revealing its varied legacies. Still, the book is a bit of a wander. As in many books in which an author is driven to tell a story in a different way, he doesn't always know where he's going.

*

DISOBEDIENCE

By Jane Hamilton

Doubleday: 274 pp., $24.95

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