Here, as in her previous two books, Lisa St Aubin de Tera'n reveals herself to be a writer fascinated by immutable passion and inexorable decay. Like some perverse hothouse flower haunting our senses with an amalgam of beauty and ugliness, her fiction each time swells into bloom, displaying a sensibility that sets her apart from other young novelists. Of course, this effect will not be to every taste, but for those readers drawn to the bizarre, the extravagant or the rococo -- who prefer Ann Radcliffe to Ann Beattie -- de Tera'n's work should prove intoxicating.

Lucien Schmutter, hero of "The Tiger," grows from boy to man in the course of the story, but it is his extraordinary childhood that dominates the course of events. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is his grandmother, Misia Schmutter, who brought him up, whose malefic indomitability shadows every word, every situation, even after death.

The two of them, along with Lucien's brothers and sisters and their father (Misia's son), the dissolute El Patro'n, live on a feudal estate deep in the Venezuelan interior. Outside the realm of San Fernando, the 20th century rolls on; inside her domain, the ferocious controlling will of Misia Schmutter is all that matters.

In the courtyard, the bloody bodies lashed to a much-used whipping post draw vultures, which Misia Schmutter picks off "with her tiny inlaid revolver." Peasant girls seduced and impregnated by El Patro'n are forced by her to miscarry, in ways "so dire that few of them survived it." A governess taken ill with typhus is condemned to perish, untreated and screaming, in a barricaded shack, and a rebellious 13-year-old granddaughter who's been made a lesson of dies mysteriously, trying to run away. Misia Schmutter's husband, the local rumor goes, succumbed to snakebite, just to spite her.

Yet the horrifying sadistic acts committed by Misia Schmutter -- she is always referred to by both names -- do take on a kind of ghastly grandeur, the riveting lure of utter monstrousness. When she herself finally dies, of a malignancy stronger than her own, and Lucien announces it to the assembled household, it is as if the known world is turned on its head. "He might have said that the sky was made of corrugated iron, or that horses have three heads, for all they believed him."

Bound to her by the extremes of love/hate to which she submitted and exposed him, Lucien knows that no one else will shed a tear "for this woman whom they looked on as a witch but whom they had always feared too much to stone." And the reader -- mesmerized, disgusted, uncertain what's to come -- also breathes a sigh of relief that Misia Schmutter's tyrannical grip on the story is over. For Lucien, her chosen heir, grows up to have "both a gentleness and a distance . . . all the firmness of his ancestors without Misia Schmutter's eccentricities."

Nonetheless, he, too, is destined to become a legend. First known as a whimsical millionaire, builder of architectural follies and perpetual party-giver in the capital city of Caracas, later as a dangerous political conspirator, Lucien is actually never free of Misia Schmutter's demands or expectations of him. Every action he takes, he takes secure in the knowledge that he is a man with a mission, one to which she has entrusted him; the difficulty is that it is never clear to him just what this mission is. "I just know that I have to go on," he explains to the faithful Cruz, his Sancho Panza.

Though she is British, de Tera'n's portrayal of Lucien and his ill-defined quest is tinted with the "magic realism" of such Latin American writers as Garcia Ma'rquez. Reality and fantasy are blended, and the metaphors circle in on each other, so that the "tiger" of the title is any number of "beasts" -- both literal and figurative -- Lucien must struggle with. There's a certain pleasure to this, as the different symbolic strands are pulled through the tapestry to make one overall design. But there's also a danger of those same threads getting tangled and one's losing patience.

Is de Tera'n simply weaving a lushly mesmerizing spell about a monstrous old woman and her legacy? Or is she making deeper points about whether it is, indeed, "only the great who can ever master chance," and what "the power of power" entails? About the need for "faith in the order and beauty of things"? Or what it means to act "alone with no regard for the consensus"?

Tall towers, hard stones, murderous tigers, "drought and tyranny" -- what do these recurring motifs have in common? One answer may be that they all are things that, in a manner of speaking, "take the initiative," an important dictum of Misia Schmutter. By their strength, they last where others do not. And so does Lucien, though he spends his life without understanding to what end he's applying his inherited force of will.

"The Tiger," like de Tera'n's earlier novels, explores obsession and offers a landscape that, however strange and unsettling, becomes quickly familiar -- if, that is, one responds to and is not repelled by the feverishness of her singular imaginative powers.