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A SPELL OF WINTER By Helen Dunmore; Atlantic Monthly Press: 314 pp., $24

SINGING BOY By Dennis McFarland; Henry Holt: 310 pp., $25

AIDING AND ABETTING By Muriel Spark; Doubleday: 166 pp., $21

February 25, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A SPELL OF WINTER By Helen Dunmore; Atlantic Monthly Press: 314 pp., $24

"A Spell of Winter" reads so much like "Jane Eyre" that one feels one ought to shout: Charlotte Bronte is back! The similarity lies in the soil of the book, in the taproot, not in the grammar. So little is transmitted through grammar or fact. (One is about style, the other about hierarchy.) In "A Spell of Winter," the facts are less important than how they are understood. A brother and sister are sent to live in their grandfather's large, cold country house, where they are raised by a nice maid and a nasty tutor. Their mother is somewhere in France; their father dies in a sanitarium. Everything is hidden from the children, the way it so often is. What opens the door to this novel is the way the characters perceive the facts. This is the spell cast by the author. "I walk up the frozen field," the sister remembers her youth. "I cannot damage the earth, or anything that is in it." The phrase is dense with meaning, like a puzzle, and at some point that meaning will come whizzing at you. You can't get to it by climbing a collection of facts like rungs on a ladder. They just aren't there for you or for the brother and sister. They must put one foot in front of the other, and in their isolation they fall into a different kind of love. "Time hung, and stopped," Helen Dunmore writes of their childhood. "Her teeth hawed at me," she writes of the children's tutor's smile. "It was a big, staring, tiptoe house," she writes of the sanitarium where the children's father dies. The doctor looks like "he had been half-cooked, then taken off the range." Dunmore writes of the way people manipulate each other. Facts are never useful in these instances. Novels this good usually have a restrained author at the helm. But Dunmore touches everything: skin, bone, frozen earth.

SINGING BOY By Dennis McFarland; Henry Holt: 310 pp., $25

Some weeks there is nothing but awe. How do these authors do it? It's not for the money. It's not for the fame. (For the transparently untalented ones, maybe, but who can blame them for trying?) But for the good ones, it's got to be nothing but isolation and torture. Straining to imagine how a thing feels: a shot in the head, the death of a husband. Knowing, secretly, painfully, when you fail to get it right. Knowing it's in print. Knowing most people won't even notice. Yet it must be death-defying to write a novel. Which is what Dennis McFarland does in "Singing Boy": rips his characters to pieces with grief, then solders them back together, leaving scars and growth rings. This young boy, Harry, 8, is with his mother and father, driving home one night, when they get stuck behind a very slow car. At a red light, his father, Malcom, gets out to see if the driver in the car is OK. While Sarah, his mother, turns, Harry watches the driver of the car in front of them pull out a gun and shoot his father. Here, you see, the facts matter and, in McFarland's telling, the facts are repeated: the lights changing, the sound of the gun, over and over week after week, until they change into dreams and drawings for Harry and some kind of prayer for Sarah, a ladder, yes, that she can climb to get out of grief. Deckard, a Vietnam vet and Malcolm's best friend, tries to help. He is afraid for Harry, locked in a paralysis with Sarah, but he can't rescue the mother and son. The novel ends abruptly, as though McFarland became tired from imagining the characters' lives, as though he'd set them on the right path and felt they were strong enough for him to leave.

AIDING AND ABETTING By Muriel Spark; Doubleday: 166 pp., $21

Awash in quirk, "Aiding and Abetting" has the feel of pure lark. It's a novel, Muriel Spark explains to her readers, based on the story of the seventh earl of Lucan, missing since Nov. 7, 1974, when his wife was taken to the hospital for head wounds and his children's nanny was found dead in a mail sack in his house in London. He has been wanted all these years (the novel is set in the present) for murder and attempted murder. He has been spotted in Africa and around Europe, and it is widely thought that his friends in the upper classes have supported him. And yet this is not a novel about all the blood on the hands of noblemen. Spark has instead created a farce, a story in which the earl has a double, named Walker. Together they bamboozle authorities and collect money from friends. Together they go to see the famous Parisian psychoanalyst, Hildegard Wolf, with every intent of extortion. Wolf has her own secret past: She once posed as a stigmatic (making use of heavy monthly bleeding) and convinced followers the world over that she could create miracles for a nominal fee. She is wanted for fraud. These characters and a few others chase one another around England and France like Keystone Kops. In the end, the earls are shipped off to Africa to teach the sons of a chief how to be English earls. One of them meets a gruesome end.

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