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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

"The Right Hand of Sleep," John Wray's confident and compelling first novel, looks into one small corner of Austria during the Anschluss. What he finds adds little to the history of World War II but much to the exploration of human peculiarity. His tale revolves around the adventures of one Oskar Voxlauer, an ordinary Austrian boy from the town of Niessen bei Villach. Like Aharon Appelfeld's "Badenheim 1939," Wray's "The Right Hand of Sleep" grinds its focus tightly on a small corner of the human comedy set on a larger tragic stage. While Wray sprawls at times and lets his hero use the bulkiness of a novel to wander into ill-defined thickets, he writes with an assurance that makes his Voxlauer both complex and compelling.

Jonathan Levi

*

THE SAILOR'S WIFE

A Novel

By Helen Benedict

Zoland Books: 294 pp., $24

*

Joyce Perlman is a nice, bored, yearning Miami teenager who has the great misfortune to encounter, in a supermarket, a young, white-uniformed Greek sailor called Nikos. Nikos has black curly hair, amber eyes, an inflated male ego and staggering good looks. They elope, get married and return to Nikos' island (a not even perfunctorily disguised Lemnos, here renamed Ifestia), where reality, in the shape of village life and tough peasant in-laws, kicks in with a vengeance. The date is 1975. This is the side of old-style Greek rural poverty that tourists never see, delineated with merciless accuracy yet also with a surprising degree of compassion. This is a bitter, wise and powerful novel. Helen Benedict's anatomy of Greek village life and peasant psychology is penetrating and just.

Peter Green

*

THE SAME SEA

A Novel

By Amos Oz

Translated from the Hebrew

by Nicholas de Lange

in collaboration with the author

Harcourt: 208 pp., $24

*

There are modern scribblers, from John Steinbeck to Bob Dylan, John Barth to Tim Rice, who have fashioned modern parables out of the ancient cloth of the Bible. Few are the writers, however, who are so thoroughly familiar with the texture of the language and image that they can weave their allusions seamlessly into modern stories. Fewer still are those who can sift out the God-threads and make biblical poetry shine in all its secular human-formed splendor. In his deceptively light and easily read novel, "The Same Sea," Amos Oz scores an impressive and moving victory for the myths and poetry of de-deified Jewish culture. Mixing poetry with prose and language from the "Song of Songs" with images from the Gospels in a series of first-person letters and confessions, Oz tells the story of ordinary people in an extraordinary manner. "The Same Sea" recognizes that, for a people familiar with biblical language and biblical image, for whom the mythology of the Middle East is as much a part of the textural history of their lives as the Scud missiles, the brownouts and the discos of Tel Aviv, the wealth of this library of knowledge can produce literature that is both spiritually moving and secularly provocative.

Jonathan Levi

*

SAP RISING

A Novel

By Christine Lincoln

Pantheon: 176 pp., $20

*

Dipping into this story cycle about small-town life in the not-so-Deep South is like pulling a half-forgotten book off the shelf of the local library. The tone and pace of Christine Lincoln's accomplished debut have the ring of great American mid-century writing, before anybody thought of stuff like postmodernism or minimalism. The effect is of plainly chosen words that continually pool into something sensuous, surprising and a shade magical. As Lincoln pokes around the nooks and crannies of Grandville, Md., we can almost hear the crickets sing and feel the humidity in the air: "... Grandville, where time was measured by how long it took the sun to sink to the bottom of the sky, and distance by the steps it took to get to someone's yard." Throughout these stories about stories, with their quiet aura of unapologetic modernism, Lincoln takes the measure of Grandville's daily life gesture by gesture, brightening the corners where youth turns into adulthood, faithfulness into adultery, stories into truth.

Mark Rozzo

*

A SECRET FOR JULIA

A Novel

By Patricia Sagastizabal

W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $23.95

*

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