The Concubine's Tale

Sailing home to Martinique from her French boarding school, pubescent schoolgirl Aime{acute}e du Buc de Rivery fell into the hands of pirates and ended up as a gift for Sultan Abdul Hamid, ruthless 18th-century ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Aime{acute}e, renamed Nakshidil, never escaped, and lived out her life as a harem slave.

In Seraglio (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95), Janet Wallach takes this true story and recreates Nakshidil's life in the opulent, decadent Topkapi Palace, offering up a plot as heavy and layered as a jewel-encrusted concubine's robe.

After some youthful yet fruitless rebellion, Nakshidil gives up any hope that she will see her family again. She comes to embrace her role as a pleaser of men, in particular Hamid's successor, the young and handsome Sultan Selim; the leader is so smitten that he gives childless Nakshidil an orphan princeling to raise. Plots to overthrow the sultan, Napoleon's incursions into the Empire, and the French harem girl's attempts to introduce European culture into the palace cause her to fall in and out of fortune with those in power.

Wallach, co-author of several books about the Middle East, has made some curious choices in structuring her first novel. For one thing, Nakshidil's story is told from the point of view of her confidant, a black eunuch named Tulip, who narrates the novel to a Greek Orthodox priest. While Wallach may want these concentric narratives to represent the power and reach of the Ottoman Empire, the result is a novel that feels rushed; its twisted plots and subplots of palace intrigue and harem jealousy are too tightly wound. Readers' interest may ultimately lie with Tulip, self-described "half man, half woman . . . freak," who so delicately and vividly brings Nakshidil to life. He is Wallach's, and Seraglio's, best creation.

Speaking in Tongues

There's a noirish quality to The Interpreter (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), Suki Kim's debut novel of family strife and secrets. A member of the "1.5" generation of Asian immigrant children who have spent most of their lives in the United States, protagonist Suzy Park wanders grieving through New York City, her well-educated brain on fire and her emotions as sodden as the autumn skies.

The novel begins five years after Suzy's parents' brutal, unsolved murders and a decade after her sister Grace's emotional secession from her life. In her job as a Korean interpreter for lawyers and the court system, Suzy sees herself as "always working for the other side." Yet Suzy's work provides a tentative link to her family and their Korean past, and, ultimately, a possible key to her parents' murders and her sister's more recent disappearance.

Days and weeks of Suzy's life, full of chain smoking, suppressed feelings and demanding phone calls from her absent, married lover, at times give Kim's novel a relentlessly dark background for what is really a story of self-discovery. We must first read Suzy's depression and rootlessness as a struggle for interpretation, in all its meanings; Suzy actively conceals herself, and others frequently stereotype her. But despite Kim's fine prose, the mysteries of Suzy's parents' death and Grace's disappearance don't demand solutions, and readers are left with unanswered questions that they may never have raised. The Interpreter is a novel full of promise, much of it fulfilled, but as a story about one woman's search for true home and family it sometimes leaves its heroine stranded between the plot of a murder mystery and the sensibilities of a Bildungsroman.

Tropical Troubles

Lila Gunasekera, the 11-year-old daughter of Sue, an American, and Derek, a Sri Lankan Derek, lives and thrives on a rubber plantation outside Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. Derek's dream is to turn the plantation into a nature sanctuary; Lila's dream is to paint pictures and to maintain her idyllic life in the jungle.

Edward Hower's A Garden of Demons (Ontario Review, $22.95) starts out in a land of wild deer, monkeys and coconut palms, but lurking behind every wall of tropical flowers is the threat of revolution. Set in the late 1990s, Hower's novel relates the demise of Lila's naivete{acute} as violence escalates between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Lila is an intelligent child, observant and coddled, and Hower compares the girl's innocence to the primeval nature of the plantation and to the adult Gunasekeras' unrealistic plans for the land. Lila can't quite justify enjoying her father's sanctuary when starving children hover outside its barbed-wire fence. Sue's shady brother, Richard, arrives from the States to point out these discrepancies, but even he is temporarily seduced by Sri Lanka's lush beauty.

Hower, the author of six other novels and a book of Indian folklore, is a sensitive and exacting writer; his vast knowledge of Sri Lanka never overwhelms. Unfortunately, as vibrant as both Lila and her surroundings are, she's finally still a child, limited in perception. Consequently her interpretation of the final showdown between the government and the Tigers, which threatens the sanctuary, is not very illuminating. It's hard to know what to take away from A Garden of Demons. Lila learns from her experiences, but not enough to free her from her family's influence. Her heart stays on the plantation, where, one suspects, a sturdier story resides.

Complex Portraits

Risa Miller's first novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights (St. Martin's, $23.95), is a story of community. In Israel's West Bank, several orthodox Jewish families from America have settled to make aliyah, a return to the land. Among them are Tova and her husband, Mike, who leave their upper-middle-class life in Baltimore for an apartment in Heavenly Heights, hard by the Jordanian border. Tova and Mike and their three children immerse themselves in the lives of the complex's other residents and attempt to adjust to ever-circling army helicopters and bomb searches.

Miller depicts their marginal existence in remarkable prose: The blue Judean sky is like "an eye restraining itself from tears." Miller's fine writing contrasts the emigrants' religious rituals with the stark life outside their homes. There's devotion in almost every moment of the settlers' days; even starting life over in Israel is a sign of religious dedication.

To Miller's credit, the settlers are not homogeneous. Tova's closest friend, Debra, was raised in Appalachia on country music and stories of her absent Jewish father. Now Debra sings twangy versions of spiritual songs. Fiery Sandy has only one child, which makes her an anomaly in the building, and she has difficulty seeing her son for the troubled child he is. Mr. Stanetsky, a Holocaust survivor, is the building's mortgage godfather, a rich immigrant who subsidizes the settlers' payments.

The novel doesn't have a plot per se; instead it charts the settlers' emotional and spiritual adjustments to Israel and to their perceived roles as pioneers. However, what Miller's novel lacks in action is more than made up for by her memorable portraits of people out of sync with both the country they've left behind and with the political reality of their new home.

Power and Passion

Readers who know the work of novelist (and Chilean ambassador to Germany) Antonio Ska{acute}rmeta will be familiar with Burning Patience, which was made into the acclaimed film "Il Postino." Ska{acute}rmeta's new novel, The Poet's Wedding (Welcome Rain, $26.95), a tall tale of island isolation and imperialism, only adds to his reputation as one of Latin America's most highly regarded authors.

In The Poet's Wedding, the residents of the fictional Adriatic island of Gema fear that history will repeat itself. Decades earlier, the owner of the island's department store lost his bride, a woman of legendary beauty, in a wedding-night tragedy. Twenty years later, Jeronimo Franck of Austria comes to Gema to revive the moribund store and to bring the wonders of the early 20th century to the backward island. He also falls in love with Gema's most beautiful woman, Alia Emar.

Alia is sensuous and odd, with sex appeal that drives men to despair. She's a reminder that magical realism has become something of an ossified genre: Readers now expect the exaggerated sexual congress, the deadly and colorful diseases, the grotesque eccentrics and the imposition of modern inventions on deprived cultures (in Gema's case it's the motion picture).

And, of course, fantastical beauty brings tremendous ruin. Jeronimo's betrothal to Alia is nearly derailed because of her attraction to Esteban Coppeta. When Esteban's brother, Reino, boards an invading ship of the Austro-Hungarian navy and compromises the Coppeta tradition of passivity, the brothers' and Alia's fates hang in the balance. Ska{acute}rmeta's lively and joyful novel is really about imperialism and hegemony, though those ideas sometimes get lost in the admittedly delicious chaos of wedding preparations, unrequited love, irreverent priests and a final, violent epilogue that, alas, takes place off the page. *

Judy Doenges is the author of "What She Left Me"; she teaches at Colorado State University.