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October 26, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Two-Pound Tram

A Novel

William Newton

Bloomsbury: 186 pp., $15.95

EnTER the dreamlike, secluded novel of two brothers growing up in Sussex, England, in the 1930s. Wilfred is 1 1/2 years younger than Duncan. They see their disaffected parents once a week until their mother finally runs off and their father turns his back on them. Duncan, who becomes mute after a fever that almost kills him, is expelled from school. Wilfred leaves as well, to live forever in his brother's world.

Now 16 and 17, the boys run away to follow a childhood dream. They buy an antique tram, complete with a horse and a dog. Soon they have passengers and a regular route. They pick up Hattie, a girl who has always wanted the "life of a Romany." She collects the fares. When winter comes, they park the tram in the field of a wealthy Viennese gentleman who came to Sussex in the exodus of Jews after World War I. He buys them a motorized tram. The war comes. Duncan brings down an enemy bomber with a catapult and is decorated by the king and queen. Wilfred becomes a doctor who, in his later years, writes a memoir of his mysterious and miraculous childhood with his brother. "The Two-Pound Tram" is a necklace of miracles, each more beautiful and unbelievable than the last. That it may be author William Newton's memoir may be the most dazzling miracle of all.

*

A Home for the Highland Cattle and The Antheap

Two Novellas

Doris Lessing, edited by Jean Pickering

Broadview Press: 202 pp., $12.95 paper

THESE two short novels written by Doris Lessing in 1953 have been out of print for 25 years and are here resurrected, if only to increase our dissatisfaction with more recently written works from and about Africa. Lessing, who was born in 1919, moved with her parents to what was then Rhodesia when she was 5; she left school at 14. Both novellas reveal the crimes and casualties of colonialism, from the gross erosion of dignity to the very specific promise of revenge echoing through the decades. "A Home for the Highland Cattle" is about a well-meaning British immigrant whose Fabian principles unravel in the light of 1930s daily life. "The Antheap," which has an even more powerful bite, is about Tommy, a young white boy growing up in an isolated mining compound run by a tyrannical if good-natured Scotsman, his father's boss. Tommy befriends a light-skinned boy his own age who, he discovers, is one of many children sired but not claimed by the miner. The boys, who become like brothers, force the miner to recognize his responsibility. With her light hand at morality, Lessing is a genius at letting her characters hang themselves.

*

The Black Violin

A Novel

Maxence Fermine, translated from the French by Chris Mulhern

Atria Books: 133 pp., $16

IT is 1796 in Paris. At 31, violinist Johannes Karelsky, a child prodigy long forgotten by his public, is called into Napoleon's army. He is badly wounded in the first two weeks, left on a field for dead. He is visited in the night by a ghostly woman in black who holds him and sings to him with the most beautiful voice he has ever heard. He recovers and is sent back to aid in Bonaparte's invasion of Venice, where he is billeted with Erasmus, an old violin maker. "Erasmus had three precious possessions: a chessboard, which he believed to be magic; an ageless bottle of grappa; and a black violin." While playing chess in the evenings, Karelsky hears of Erasmus' apprenticeship in the studio of Antonio Stradivarius and how he came to create the cursed black violin. Erasmus warns him never to play the ebony instrument, which embodies the heartbreakingly beautiful voice of a young woman he fell in love with in his youth. Fate reigns unchallenged in this novel of connected lives. Maxence Fermine writes with all the passions of a French fabulist, but her language is crisp, and the lines of her story are simple and elegant.

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