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Short Novels

The wife of Jim from Huckleberry Finn answers with her own version, and other brief takes.

By Renee Bergland
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page BW13

Rivers of Memory

My Jim (Crown, $19.95) is Nancy Rawles's answer to Huckleberry Finn. Where Mark Twain celebrates Huck's voice, Rawles celebrates the voice of Sadie Watson, the woman who was left behind in slavery when her husband, Jim, escaped down the Mississippi with Huck.

Rawles begins during the hot summer of 1884, when Marianne Libre and her grandmother Sadie are making a quilt together. As they piece and sew, Sadie shows Marianne a few small objects that remind her of her past. There aren't many because Sadie was not allowed to hang on to much: "Just a few small things you can hold in one hand. I feels them with my fingers. Knife so small. Piece of felt. Bottom of a clay bowl. Childs tooth. Shiny gold button. Corn pipe thick with tar."

The women design the quilt to represent and memorialize these precious things and the stories that they hold. As they make the quilt, Marianne records her grandmother's words in prose steeped in Southern black dialect. Sadie cannot read, and she has no paper records. She owns almost nothing. But the small fragments of her past that structure this book provide a powerful governing metaphor. It is hard to cling to history without hanging onto objects or writing down words, but it is not impossible. And even when memory fails, the past still watches over us, Sadie explains, because, "Everybody who love come back. Sooner or later they come for you."

Although many critics have celebrated Huckleberry Finn's challenges to racism (most often by commenting on the fully realized humanity of Jim), others dismiss it because it is far too accepting of racist attitudes. In short, Huckleberry Finn is an easy target. But Rawles never attacks. She engages Mark Twain with such large generosity, paying homage to Twain's characters and fluency with Southern dialects even as she shows herself equal to (maybe better than) Twain when it comes to writing them. She quietly comments on Twain's frequent use of racial epithets by having Sadie explain to her granddaughter that, "We still colored but we aint niggers no more. Whites got to find them some new niggers but aint gonna be us." Rawles makes Sadie's Jim into a much more fully realized character than Huck's Jim, without ever belittling Huck or his creator. Finally, and most impressively, she writes a black women's book that builds on the ultimate white boy's book instead of trying to tear it down. My Jim is a short novel but a very large work.

A Childhood Soufflé

Growing up in Paris, the narrator of Linda Ferri's Enchantments (Knopf, $18.95; translated from the Italian by John Casey) observes "Frenchkids" from a distance and forms shifting alliances with a series of best friends from faraway places. A "jeune fille de bonne famille" (privileged French girl), she isn't really French at all; she has an American-Italian mother, an Italian father. With her parents and siblings she spends summers in Umbria and occasional holidays in White Plains, N.Y. In simple sentences that strive for a childlike effect, Ferri describes a cosmopolitan and somewhat magical childhood, a state of pleasant, mild cultural alienation summed up when the narrator blurts out her ambition to become "the best French-Italian cook of pasta and chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream" in the world.

Although framed as a memoir, the novel is barely filtered through adult consciousness. The narrator details her fascination with childhood things: Barbie's breasts, horseback riding, the fear of being spanked, a séance for a dead turtle, and the sublime taste of pasta, soufflé and ice cream mixed together. She also gestures toward the complicated political context of Paris in the 1960s that, childlike, she experiences without understanding. Toward the end, when the girl (who is never named) and her sister are caught in the leftist student demonstrations of May 1968, their father drags them up and over the roofs of stopped cars, with strangers screaming while Simone de Beauvoir's voice booms out across the crowd. Safe at home, the girl asks her father if he has lived according to de Beauvoir's ideals. He answers in a "vague, pensive voice": "Ah . . . I'm not sure. Yes, probably yes . . . At any rate, I've never felt that I was living someone else's life." Enchantments looks back at the fairy-tale world that its narrator lived in -- a world changed forever by a tragedy that struck not long after the riots -- and celebrates the bittersweet wonder of having grown up in her own family.

Quietly elegiac, Enchantments is Linda Ferri's first novel; she co-authored the screenplay for "The Son's Room," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2001. Like the film, the book centers on the psychological impact of death in the family, and Ferri handles the subject sure-handedly and gracefully.

The Running Man

Damon Galgut's The Quarry (Grove Atlantic; paperback, $12) is a mixed bag: minimalist and overworked, a simple chase narrative and a complicated language game. The novel opens with an intensely physical description of a fugitive hurrying through the grasslands of South Africa, drinking grit-filled water from a discarded bottle, washing in a cold stream under a glaring sun. We never learn who is after him, or why. He is simply "the quarry" of an unexplained chase. The plot (and the language game) gets complicated when he murders a minister who is on his way to a new job, dumps the body in an abandoned quarry and assumes the minister's identity. Soon after, a young man who has been growing marijuana at the quarry breaks into the minister's car. The petty theft links this almost-innocent bystander to the murder, and he, in turn, becomes the quarry of another manhunt.

Sometimes minimalism can be over the top. Galgut's writing is so relentlessly simple that it becomes ridiculously complicated, the work of a young writer a little bit dazzled by his own powers. And yet Galgut is a dazzlingly intelligent writer. Every word is sharp, precise, loaded with value -- often overloaded. When he tells us that the fugitive "knew that in his blue and spectral fugue of movement and sleep he was quickly drawing near to the uttermost edge of things," his words are so weighted with abstract meaning that they are nearly indecipherable. With its odd combination of concrete nouns and abstract intensity, the novel forces readers to work too hard. But although it is difficult, it is an exciting book; readers may find themselves caught up in the fugue of language, abstraction, and physical fear.

Written 10 years ago, The Quarry is being released now for the first time in the United States. Galgut has had great success with a more recent book, The Good Doctor, a finalist for the 2003 Man Booker Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the African region. By the time he wrote The Good Doctor, he had learned to temper his own brilliance; this early novel exemplifies the perils (and, at times, the intoxicating pleasures) of unadulterated literary ambition.

Body and Soul

Milk, by Darcey Steinke (Bloomsbury, $17.95), is about sex and God, and appropriately enough starts at Christmas with a young woman named Mary clutching a baby to her breast. But this is no virginal Mary -- to the contrary, she is a fully sexual being, alive to the erotic pleasures and frustrations of motherhood. Because her husband is not really interested in having sex with a mother, Mary leaves him. She moves across New York to share a rectory with Walter, an old friend from college who is a Catholic priest in mourning for his male lover. Soon, she will find some sexual comfort in the arms of John, a disaffected monk. Mary, Walter and John are all searching for God, love and sexual fulfillment, but all are puzzled about how these very different searches fit together. At one point, Walter, the priest, describes sex as "holy no matter how sleazy the circumstances, as it was the sensation beyond the reach of God," but he is not really convinced by this for long.

Unfortunately, the novel itself is not wholly convincing either. Steinke writes some beautifully mystical descriptions of sexual encounters, and the conjunction of sex and the spirit, bodies and souls, is fascinating. But the Mary/Walter/John trinity is also coldly schematic. In spite of Steinke's beautiful prose, this short novel seems skimpy rather than spare; its complicated ideas are evoked but not fully explored. Milk offers the beginning of a fascinating novel, but it stops short of delivering on that promise.

Ashes to Ashes

Johan Sletten, the main character of Linn Ullmann's Grace (Knopf, $20; translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland), is not the hero of his own tale. He is a journalist, but not the sort whose stories get noticed. He has botched most things, including his unpleasant first marriage, his disastrous relationship with his pompous, stupid son, and his terrible decision to plagiarize a story and end his career in quiet disgrace. His second marriage is the single grace note in an otherwise starkly ordinary life. He adores his wife, Mai, a doctor 17 years younger than he is, and, miraculously, she loves him. Looking back on his life, he realizes that "if he shut his eyes, and worked his way inside to the part of him that continued to burn, he could find the rapture that Mai's face awakened in him, not only when they first fell in love, but to this day. It was like discovering a clearing in the forest where wild strawberries grew."

When Johan learns that he is dying, he asks Mai to assist his suicide because he wants to do one thing with dignity in his otherwise undignified life. At first she refuses, but he continues to plead with her until, after months of resisting, Mai agrees that when it gets really bad, she will kill him. As she makes the promise, Johan sees a look of relief on her face that is hard to forgive. From then on, we are in a world of ambiguity and regret.

Grace treats the subject of assisted suicide with sorrowful ambivalence and astonishing grace. Rather than a polemical argument, the novel offers powerful affirmation of the haunting beauty of ordinary human life and death. After Johan's funeral, Ullman writes, "Now that all this is said and done, it might seem as if Johan was the only one who knew he had an inner flame, a quietly resounding yes." But Ullman, a gifted writer, succeeds in permeating her entire novel with Johan's quietly resounding yes. •

Renee Bergland teaches English and gender/cultural studies at Simmons College in Boston.

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