THE MARK OF THE ANGEL

By Nancy Huston

Translated from the French by the author

Steerforth. 222 pp. $21

Reviewed by Eugenia Zukerman

Nancy Huston is the prize-winning author of seven novels and numerous works of nonfiction. Born in Canada, she moved to Paris in 1973 and writes in both French and English. The Mark of the Angel is Huston's first book to be published in the United States. Set in the 1950s, it is the story of Saffie, an oddly passive young German woman who arrives in Paris and takes a job as a housekeeper to Raphael, a talented French flutist who is on the verge of a major solo career.

"From the beginning," we are told, "it is Saffie's indifference that fascinates Raphael. Captivates him. Bewitches him." He quickly beds and weds her, and a son is born. Neither marriage nor motherhood moves Saffie, but one day she has an erotic encounter with Andras, the Jewish-Hungarian instrument maker to whom she has brought one of her husband's flutes for repair. This sexual tsunami unleashes Saffie's passion and her hideous war memories; and the prolonged affair that ensues, conducted in the presence of Saffie's son, ultimately engulfs everyone in tragedy.

War, music, love, betrayal, set in the City of Light when the psychic wounds of World War II are still oozing and the upheaval in France over the bloody war in Algeria is reaching a fever pitch: All this has the makings of a sensual and emotionally blistering tale. Instead it reads like a mix of Greek tragedy, French farce, history lesson and soft porn. If someone other than the author had been credited with the translation, one might question whether justice had been done to the tone and intent of the original text.

Not only is the tone unfocused; the narrative is often interrupted by omniscient statements that are needlessly portentous: "There's no turning back. The words they've pronounced, the decisions they've taken, are going to have consequences." Glib asides also interrupt the flow of the story, trivializing events instead of intensifying them: "Yes, adultery can give you wings. As a general rule, the flight is brief and the fall brutal."

A flutist and writer myself, I am jarred by the novel's overly romantic descriptions of music: "He sows the notes in the passive, fertile soil of the audience like so many magic seeds, then feels them start to germinate and blossom, finally bearing fruit in the listeners' constricted hearts, providing nourishment, appeasement, meaning." Writing about music is as perilous as writing about sex, and when music and sex come together, as they often do in this book, the results can be toe-curling: "He knows how to control the unfolding of love's rites . . . just as the orchestra modulates the dynamics in the performance of a symphony, not attacking the fortissimo outright but achieving it poco a poco, so that the paroxysm becomes the natural, ineluctable, incomparable culmination of the crescendo."

That said, when Huston does use economy and grace, the writing can be compelling: "There she is. Saffie. Standing there. Her face very pale. Or to be more accurate -- pallid." But the author loses credibility when she lets loose with overwrought prose like this: "Andras, not closing his eyes, sets his two hands on the head of this perfect stranger, this foreign woman whose green eyes are now pressed tightly shut -- and his touch sets off the first orgasm of Saffie's life, a violent wave that convulses her entire body, then flings it to the floor."

The interweaving of remembered war atrocities into the story is meant, one assumes, to jolt and move the reader, and to explain (if not rationalize) the behavior of the characters in the present. But these brutalities are so detailed and so numerous that they become gratuitous and emotionally exploitative. Despite the dramatic events of the tale, the three main characters remain slight and sketchy, their actions unmotivated and unexamined. In the end, the German war survivor Saffie, the French flutist Raphael, and the Jewish-Hungarian activist instrument maker Andras become more symbolic than sympathetic and their fate therefore ultimately unlamentable. In France, this book is a bestseller. One reviewer in Elle wrote that "the narrative raises the philosophical question of guilt and innocence, and demands reflection on the omnipresence of evil." Maybe for Elle. But for moi, The Mark of the Angel misses the target.

Eugenia Zukerman, a flutist and television arts commentator, is also the author of two novels and the co-author of a nonfiction book, "Coping With Prednisone."