THE SEDUCTION OF SILENCE

By Bem Le Hunte

HarperSanFrancisco. 399 pp. $25.95

Alovely, loopy symmetry links generations and continents in this debut novel by Bem Le Hunte, a writer of Indian and British ancestry currently living in California. From an enchanted farm in the Himalayas to a spiritualist church in London several decades later, all of the characters in this multigenerational saga are searching for enlightenment. For one character this takes the form of wandering through India as a Hindu pilgrim, for another it involves going to se{acute}ances and speaking to the dead.

The Seduction of Silence is an ambitious novel that tracks five generations of an Indian family and incorporates about 100 years of history in the process. Although the story revolves around the family patriarch, Aakash, who plays a key role in the narrative even posthumously, this is primarily a drama about his wife and their female descendants. There is much about midwifery and birthing in these pages, and about women being stuck in loveless marriages, forced to make stark choices that affect the fate of future generations.

Portions of the novel read like a fairy tale, and this is where the author is at her best. Le Hunte expertly captures the magic of the Himalayas, where the family farm, Prakriti, is located. Aakash was given the land as a reward for curing the hemophiliac son of a maharajah during a game of cricket, and much about this unusually fertile place is surreal. "There was no explaining why the rain clouds would hover over his farm well before the monsoons broke down in Delhi. No explanation why the household's vegetables were twice the size of those sold in any of the nearby market towns."

This becomes a different sort of novel after the opening chapters at Prakriti, however, and much of what follows does not always work as well. While Le Hunte threads events together with a confident, steady hand, she covers too much ground in too few pages and is not always consistent when filling in the detail. Certain stories feel half-told, and it is difficult to form emotional attachments to characters as the narrative skips ahead to chronicle the next generation.

A similar problem arises as nearly 100 years of history unfurl rapidly in the background. Residents of Prakriti are blissfully isolated from the often harsh realities of life under colonial rule, but on his first journey south, Ram, Aakash's son, is beaten and thrown in jail for failing to ride in the "native" carriage of a train. Later, Ram's nephew is assaulted by an Englishwoman when he fails to step aside on a narrow sidewalk as she passes. These incidents read more like an homage to a time and place than as significant moments in characters' lives. Likewise, Hindu-Muslim riots take place during one of the more dramatic scenes set in Lahore, but they have no real substantive place in the story. There need not be a Rushdie-like intersection of the personal and the political to make for compelling fiction, but frequent references to important historical events that do not quite integrate with the narrative make the novel seem disjointed at times.

Still, Le Hunte succeeds in creating an evocative portrait of India, particularly when describing the landscape of Prakriti. "Of all mountains, the Himalayas are the highest. They sit like a prayer table on the plains. The soil is closer to the Gods, the air purer, the mind clearer. There's a potency in the earth here -- a quality of the Divine in everything that takes life."

The author also nicely illustrates how modernity has encroached on even the most remote patches of India. Decades later, when Aakash's great-grandaughter returns to visit Prakriti, she finds a very different place. The land has been subdivided, and the main house, which had burned down in a fire, has been replaced with a six-story, wobbly-looking apartment building. There is no system for trash collection, so the occupants of the building simply throw their refuse out the window. Modern New Delhi is particularly well rendered: A clock on Ring Road, sponsored by a watch manufacturer, tracks population growth by the second (ticking rapidly toward one billion) while there are references to nuclear bombs being tested in nearby Rajasthan.

The Seduction of Silence has been on bestseller lists in both India and Australia, and it seems likely to appeal to a particular audience here as well. As the title implies, this is a novel about spiritual as well as physical journeys, and readers looking for the former are likely to be the most satisfied. The author recognizes in her acknowledgments "the great rishis and yogis of India," as well as the famed swami Guru Dev. "For everyone who supports the evolution of consciousness and shares their inspiration with the world," she adds. If you are not quite sure of your own position on the evolution of consciousness or have little interest in exploring the subject, let those words serve as an advisory. *

Susan Coll is at work on her second novel. She lived in New Delhi for three years while working as a freelance writer.