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First Fiction

October 29, 2000|MARK ROZZO


By Nomi Eve

Alfred A. Knopf: 316 pp., $25

What is it about multigenerational family sagas and the honey glow that accompanies them? So often they're spritzed down like a bowl of fruit waiting to be photographed or glistening with a mystery substance that in Hollywood films might be called "beautiful cinematography." Nomi Eve, in this multi-generational family saga that plays out around Jerusalem and, later, in a cozy orchard community outside Tel Aviv, is a master of the sweet honey glow: "The Family Orchard" is a dappled, often magical, occasionally cloying tour de force. But Eve--who appears in the novel's final chapters, bringing her family's story from 1837 into the 1990s--proves she's the rightful heir to her citrus-growing forebears, filling these pages with enough tartness to cut through the most jaded reader's suspicions. When Eve points out the etymological relationship between "orchard" and "paradise," we realize that she's writing with equal parts faith and irony. The walled garden of her family history is similarly filled with light and shadow: As the book opens, we witness her great-great-great grandmother engaged in illicit sex with a local baker; later, we learn that her great-great grandparents were step-siblings; that her great-grandmother was a klepto; and that her father's handicapped brother was sent off to an institution, never to be seen again. With its shifting perspectives, luminous 19th-century lithographs of Jerusalem and diagrams depicting bud unions, "The Family Orchard" is a richly variegated creation that convincingly examines the way history, legend and intimate family stories all grow from the same rootstock.



By Julia Leigh

Four Walls Eight Windows:

170 pp., $20

Julia Leigh's novella, about a mercenary hunter's search for a possibly extinct Tasmanian tiger, has a predatory air about it: Its every move is calculated, its instincts are uncluttered by sentiment and its aim is, in the end, quite lethal. The hunter in question--employed by an unspecified biotech firm--calls himself Martin David, but we never know his real name. (Leigh's aloof narrator simply calls him M.) Names, after all, imply a traditional measure of humanity, and it's precisely its absence that Leigh is keen on evaluating. M is expressed not so much in typical fictive terms--family background, sexual orientation, number and type of pets--as by his impressive ability to scramble over a forbidding Tasmanian landscape, skin and gut the occasional wallaby for food, cover his scent by smearing himself with wombat droppings and avoid being ensnared in emotional commitments. When the broken family that provides his base camp begins to tug at his sympathies, its members are effectively killed off, leaving M's asocial operating conditions intact and reinforcing the ultimate futility of everything but the hunt: "[I]t does not matter what he had hoped for, hoping itself was an exercise in delusion." It would be a mistake to imagine M as a kind of cryogenically preserved and reanimated Ayn Rand superhero: There's no hint of manifesto in Leigh's exploration of the predatory side of human nature. What there is, however, is a difficult, often mesmerizing piece of writing that, once it gets going, doesn't stop until it hits its target.



By Ben Rice

Alfred A. Knopf: 94 pp., $16

"Lightning Ridge was full of flaming crackpots as far as I could see. It was like the sun had burnt out their brains." Ashmol Williamson, the no-nonsense Australian pre-adolescent who narrates this little outback fable, has a knack for seeing through the exterior of adult life in the contentious opal-mining community where he lives with his kid sister, Kellyanne, and their parents. But Ashmol--like nearly all of Lightning Ridge--isn't able to see two of the town's most intriguing citizens: Pobby and Dingan, a boy and girl who are, much to Ashmol's dismay, visible only to Kellyanne. At first, Ashmol resents the attention given to Kellyanne for believing in Pobby, with a limp in his right leg, and Dingan, who wears a big, fat opal in her bellybutton. But after Pobby and Dingan go missing (Mr. Williamson, according to Kellyanne, forgot to give them a ride home from his opal-mining claim) and the town brings charges of "ratting" against Williamson (his search for Pobby and Dingan accidentally brought him onto another man's claim), Ashmol launches a campaign to find the invisible twosome, dead or alive. In so doing, Ashmol enters Kellyanne's imagination, even as Kellyanne begins wasting away from an unnamed condition that may, in fact, be deadlier than grief. Ben Rice spins a disarmingly gentle yet disturbingly layered tale about buried truths and comforting myths, about what can be seen and what can't and about one family's ultimately sobering encounter with the power--and limits--of imagination.

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