CITY OF DREAMS By Beverly Swerling Simon & Schuster: 592 pp., $26.95
This whopping saga, which chronicles the rough-and-tumble goings-on of colonial Manhattan, opens in eye-catching fashion: Just as we're adjusting to Nieuw Amsterdam's scenery, of narrow lanes, church spires and windmills, Lucas Turner, an English barber recently arrived from Rotterdam, is summoned to the home of Peter Stuyvesant, the colony's one-legged overlord. There, without anesthetic or sterilized instruments, Lucas cuts open Stuyvesant's inflamed bladder, removing the stone that has caused the governor's recent ill humor.
Beverly Swerling packs these pages with so many ur-surgeries that eventually we forget to wince. But each one is no less remarkable, and together they form the fascinating--and surprisingly sturdy--thread whereby Swerling hangs this tale of successive generations of Turner apothecaries, surgeons and physicians, all competing to exercise their authority over the human body. Swerling expertly depicts the heated rift between university-trained physicians with their bloodsucking leeches and the daring, if often deadly, heroism of scalpel-wielding surgeons. It's unclear when these medical sects will ever finally merge, and it's equally unclear when the factionalized Turners will bury their various hatchets, even as the Revolution begins to head ominously down Broadway. Swerling is an amateur historian, but there's nothing amateur about this near-perfect historical novel, whose every strange chapter--teeming with bizarre medicine, slave uprisings, executions, thriving brothels and occasional cannibalistic Indians--brings forth shocks of recognition. As British Gen. William Howe, hearing a chapter of the Turner story during his occupation of New York, puts it, "Sounds like a bloody astounding tale. I'd like to hear more of it."
THE WEDDING By Imraan Coovadia, Picador USA: 282 pp., $23
"Four score and seven years ago my grandfather looked out of the window of his train and saw the most beautiful woman in the world." So begins Imraan Coovadia's debut, which recounts the story of this grandfather--Ismet Nassin--and this beautiful woman, a headstrong village girl named Khateja. Coovadia sets us up for a magic carpet ride, but he quickly pulls the rug out from under us. The story of the feckless Ismet's uncharacteristic decision to chase down the fiery Khateja, ask her father for her hand (essentially buying her outright) and, finally, to gut out a marriage wrought in the pits of hell isn't the stuff of magic so much as of virulent farce. In "The Wedding," the shrew refuses to be tamed, brandishing her beauty and brains like poison daggers while the love-struck Ismet hilariously scrambles to normalize relations. When they move in with Ismet's mother, Khateja cruelly refuses to help the overtaxed woman; after Ismet and his devil bride emigrate to South Africa, he brings her fruit as tender offerings, only to be thanked with vicious rebukes and bogus tales of deadly guavas. At one point Khateja even ties a goat to the bed for some reason. Born-to-be-mild Ismet, how much can you take? The joke is that Ismet deserves everything he gets: Didn't he essentially kidnap Khateja against her will? The domestic animus runs so deep that we're reminded of a subcontinental "Lockhorns," except that this book is much funnier and more tender (if slightly baffling) than that crusty comic strip: After all, Khateja does end up becoming the narrator's grandmother.