KRIK? KRAK! By Edwidge Danticat Soho. 224 pp. $20 IN Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat, modern Haiti may have found its voice. "When you write," she says in an epilogue, "it's like braiding your hair," and into these nine short stories she has woven the sad with the funny, the unspeakable with the glorious, the wild horror and deep love that is Haiti today.
Only 26, Danticat seems to be overflowing with the strength and insight of generations of Haitian women. In the past under Papa Doc, in New York now and on the leaky rafts in between, she speaks through the dead and through the living and the walking wounded alike, her tone changing without apparent effort to be as various as the need.
"Children of the Sea" is virtually flawless, a heartbreaking exchange of letters never sent, never received, between a young woman and her lover as his leaky boat full of people drifts toward Miami. All the island's troubles are braided seamlessly into these letters.
Trying not to think about their prospects, the refugees tell stories: "Someone says, Krik? You answer, Krak! And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves." A woman who gives birth on that boat to a baby who doesn't cry reappears four stories later in "Between the Pool and the Gardenias." Her barren goddaughter, a rich family's maid half-crazed from loneliness, finds an abandoned baby on the street, another child who doesn't cry.
And the maid's grandmother is the subject of "1937," in which she is imprisoned for witchcraft, her head shaved, starving, but still able to make a statue of the Madonna cry. In "Night Women," a hard-working mother watches her son sleep and thinks of "women who sit up through the night and undo patches of cloth that they have spent the whole day weaving . . . so that they will always have more to do." The image of Penelope, waiting for a man, is breathtaking.
Danticat's longest tales appear to be autobiographical portraits of her family, and we can only be grateful for them. If the news from Haiti is too painful to read, read this book instead and understand the place far more deeply than you ever thought possible. HAPPY DAYS, UNCLE SERGIO By Magali Garcia Ramis Translated by Carmen C. Esteves White Pine Press. 175 pp. paperback $12 BILLED AS the best-selling novel in Puerto Rico's history, this slender evocation of light and shadows reads more like a memoir, a collection of quiet anecdotes from a life drenched in family.
Through the eyes of Lydia, the youngest girl in a house full of women, we experience the sedate lives of urban, middle-class Puerto Ricans during the 1950s and 1960s. Not for Garcia Ramis the lush passions of Latin stereotypes or flights of magical realism; here we have a life of solid everyday respectability so rigid it would be paralyzing if not for the family's unfailing care for all its parts.
Into Lydia's tranquility of heat and church and games and gossip comes Uncle Sergio, mysterious and vague, a young man returned for some undisclosed reason from some unnamed sojourn in New York, back to the family home without any evident purpose or goal. He stays a while, teaching Lydia and her brother Andres about art, about stamps and coins and friendship.
She is mesmerized: "I lifted the cover of his hamper and smelled and smelled, trying to establish the difference between the odor of his dirty clothes and the intermingled aroma from the clothes in our family hamper, but the only thing I managed to do was to identify his scent distinctly and forever." Over the years, the cat vanishes and is buried in absentia; a hurricane misses the house; the world outside, always blurred, changes a little; Lydia comes to understand the passage of time; and adolescence approaches with its certain truculence: What is life all about, anyway? Accidentally, Uncle Sergio helps Lydia grow up. Then he leaves.
It is a gentle tale, a Bildungsroman from a quarter not much heard from before, and interesting for that reason. But the various aunts and cousins remain indistinct and nearly interchangeable, and Sergio's mystery is never very compelling. The book is less a novel than a wistful contribution to the sociology of a small and, alas, vanished fragment of Puerto Rican time. A SHELL FOR ANGELA By Ofelia Dumas Lachtman Arte Publico Press. 214 pp. paperback $9.95 IN this book, another novel about finding oneself, Angela Raine has made herself a comfortable life, with a successful Anglo husband and two grown kids off on their own. Why, then, is she fleeing their Los Angeles home, heading her Cadillac south into a monster freeway traffic jam, bound for Mexico?
The outline of the plot holds promise. In flashbacks, we learn that years ago Angela's father, Manuel, a legal Mexican immigrant desperate for work, had hired out himself and his sons Ricardo and Alberto for a summer as fruit pickers. Their brutal exploitation is believably drawn, a task hard for novelists because ordinarily we expect the cruelty in these scenes to be mindful. Organizing a work stoppage, Manuel and Ricardo are lucky only to be beaten up and fired.
"Things will get better," Manuel tells Angela's mother when they get back. But they don't. Angela, stuck in traffic, remembers her father's arrest, his death and funeral, her marriage, her recent cancer operation, tension with her husband.
Lachtman's writing shows occasional flashes, but the novel has a shakier structure than the family birdhouse. Lachtman too often announces traits she should have shown in action. She instructs us how to feel; she asserts reasons for behavior we have not seen; indeed, the plot turns on decisions never shown. The flashbacks arrive in jarring chunks, the shell of the title appears to be an afterthought.
The end of Angela's journey is predictable far too early, and the trip leaves the reader irritated at the missing scenery. It's too bad no editor went along for the ride. UNDER THE FEET OF JESUS By Helena Maria Viramontes Dutton. 180 pp. $18.95 THE BEST literary fiction makes its villains out of situations rather than people, and finds its heroes not in noble victors but in the spirit of ordinary men and women. In this lyrical tale of a fruit-picking family in some nameless weedy place, there is no sadistic overseer, unless it is the pitiless sun, which sucks sweat and hope from laboring bodies. Viramontes's novel comes the closest of any yet to universalizing this appalling life.
Petra, the mother, copes with scorpions, varicose veins, her five young children and her new almost-husband, named, not ironically, Perfecto. His handyman skills and bottomless toolbox are not quite enough to hold the world together, and he dreams, as his bifocals slip down his nose, of home in Mexico without all these responsibilities.
As the book opens, the family arrives at the abandoned shack they will occupy during their latest fruit-picking job, their station wagon's battery nearly run down, their expectations minimal. Only Estrella, Petra's 13-year-old daughter, shows a little fierce energy, exploring the nearby ruined barn that will become a symbolic focus of the story.
Watching her from a nearby tree is Alejo, a boy stealing peaches with his cousin after picking fruit all day for someone else. The story gradually draws us into these people's pasts as they learn about each other, take care of each other and make each other laugh. When they can't make themselves understood to a clinic worker, the incomprehension is as much symbolic as real, and the explosion that results is no one person's fault.
Viramontes's prose is like topiary, shaped so thoroughly into elliptical metaphor that it often calls attention to itself, leaving the reader unsure who is talking or what exactly is going on. But images linger: Estrella remembers "the way his thumbnail plowed the peel off the orange in one long spiral, as if her father plowed the sun." The book will linger for a while, too. AFRICAN PASSIONS By Beatriz Rivera Arte Publico. 168 pp. paperback $9.95 BEATRIZ RIVERA should try her hand at satire. She has a great range of quirky plots in her eight short stories, but the overlapping characters drift into unbelievability and then into embarrassment so often that you wish she had intended it that way. Unfortunately, she didn't.
In "Paloma," the story that comes closest to succeeding, a lovely young mother named Paloma somehow looks drab in all her photographs in her native country, but dreams her way to Miami over and over again by lending out her passport. The reader's uncertainty as to what is real and what is not gives the story some awkward charm.
The title piece has a promising start: An anxious Cuban-American woman summons all the gods of Santeria (a variety of voodoo) to New York to help her keep her lover, and they arrive: "The spice rack trembled in the kitchen. Out of the pepper jumped Orula, the clairvoyant. Then the bloodthirsty Ogun crawled out of the rosemary, and the feminine Yemaya flew out of the cilantro." But these "characters" aren't anything more than petulant, even when they kill the cat, and the woman and her man, driving around New York to find a place to bury the pet, are just as mechanical and lifeless.
Rivera doesn't seem to like any of her characters, even -- or perhaps especially -- the ones who seem appealing at first. Her drive to make moral points undermines any literary excitement she might have wrought from the vivid situations she creates. Joanne Omang, a former Central America correspondent for The Washington Post, is the author of the novel "Incident at Akabal."