SWAN

By Frances Mayes

Broadway. 319 pp. $25

Frances Mayes earned her celebrity with three books about Tuscany, especially Under the Tuscan Sun, her inviting memoir of the house she and her husband bought and renovated in Cortona. In that book, Mayes occasionally alluded to her Southern origins, noting that as a child, she picked Sugar Baby watermelons straight from a South Georgia field, and that she shares the Southern obsession with place and belonging. Now she has taken the adventurous literary step of leaving Cortona and returning to South Georgia, to Swan, a small town that gives her new novel its name.

The circumstances are lurid. The body of Catherine Mason, buried 19 years ago, has been dug up and left beside her wrecked grave. Not only that: The gravestone of her father-in-law, Big Jim Mason, has been defaced with angry slashes of black paint. It's sickening, sensational news -- just the kind that animates a sleepy little town like Swan.

None of Catherine's immediate family could be responsible. Technically, they have alibis, but their gumption is gone, disabled long ago by Catherine's suicide. Her husband, Wills, is only 60, but he's lived for years in a nursing home, where his lucidity flickers off and on. Catherine's son, J.J., has all the brains and charm and money a young man could want, but he spends his days as a "wisecracking, womanizing, hunter-gatherer man of the woods." His sister, Ginger, calls him the Philandering Hermit. Ginger herself has fetched up in Italy, where she and her Italian lover belong to an archaeological team excavating a site once inhabited by the mysterious Etruscans.

They couldn't be any more mysterious than the ordinary people of Swan. One longtime resident observes, "We run on what's not said. . . . For all the talk, talk, talk we do, the crucial subjects are swallowed without a sound." And almost every family in Swan is concealing something. Some eccentricities are harmless and may be shown to the world, such as Miss Agnes Burkhart's collection of gallstones, kept in a jar on the windowsill; other curiosities, such as the puzzle of Catherine's suicide and exhumation, can be solved by resourceful inquiry. But deeper mysteries, the secrets of the soul, must be coaxed out by love, trust and intuition. This is the essential plot of Swan.

As Ginger and J.J. try to make sense of the grisly evidence, Swan slowly reveals itself to them, and they discover themselves in their attachment to it. Of course, they have to get past the obstacles of the legendary South: "the shadow of the hanging tree, Robert E. Lee on Traveler. . . . And all of us narcotized by the scent of magnolia." Activities such as spotting "Jesus Saves spelled out in hubcaps on a hillside" or drinking "Co-Cola" are part of the cultural South -- trivial, ephemeral. But when Ginger and J.J. dive, as they used to do in childhood, into the heart of a cold spring in the river, they make a profound connection with the timeless South: the land itself, "the forests, the heat, the waters."

That Southern sense of place informs many passages in Swan that are almost prose poems. (Mayes is the author of several books of poetry.) There's also a great deal of time-travel. It serves the plot, as everyone tries to figure out what happened the other day at the graveyard, and 19 years ago when Catherine died, and years before that where the cause of her death lies hidden. As an archaeologist, Ginger is trained to unearth the past and deconstruct its mute evidence. In contrast, Swan's secrets are anything but mute; they are alive in the memory of its residents, who will reveal them, if Ginger can get them to speak.

Mayes's plot is tidily knit, her narrative voice sympathetic and relaxed. She has an appreciative ear for South Georgia idiom: the not-very-bright store clerk who is "one brick shy of a load" or the husband who warns his wife not to meddle in her employer's business: "You don't have a dog in that fight." Here, as in her Tuscan books, is the same gift for rendering domestic life with a generosity of detail that is the literary equivalent of hospitality. Even a diehard Northerner can warm to the portrait of the town, which in the course of the novel is appealingly crosshatched and textured, without the heavy self-consciousness of some "regional" novels. Once the initial disturbing event is past, Swan is a welcoming world to escape to, and a graceful debut for Frances Mayes as a novelist. *

Frances Taliaferro is a writer in New York.