STRANGE TOYS By Patricia Geary Bantam Books. 248 pp. $3.50
In her 1982 novel "Living in Ether," Patricia Geary created in the character of Deirdre Gage, a 25-year-old practicing psychic, a striking focus for her portrayal of anomie and yearning for spirituality in the endless summer of Southern California. The book was praised by critics but didn't reach the audience that would have welcomed its sly vision of a life of spirit guides and Ouija boards following naturally upon a middle-class childhood of sweetened cereal and ballet lessons.
The appearance this spring of "Living in Ether" in paperback has apparently brought the novel a more fantasy-minded readership, and Bantam has now published Geary's new novel, "Strange Toys," as a paperback original. Longer, denser and more complex than its predecessor, "Strange Toys" is nevertheless strikingly similar to "Living in Ether," as alike, despite a wholly different plot, as a musical variation on a theme.
Pet, 9 years old in 1960, is the youngest of three daughters in a seriously disturbed and faintly sinister family. The eldest daughter Deane, an uncontrollable teen-ager who puts a hex sign on her bedroom door and claims to have caused her father to break his arm, has gotten into trouble with the police and disappeared. Linwood, a regal belle who inherited money, and her nonentity husband Stan fret in their self-absorption, leaving Pet and her bullying sister June to withdraw deeper into their fantasy games and imaginary world of toy animals. Pet ventures into Deane's room one night and finds her lost kitten, stuffed, and a leather book that purports to contain magic spells.
When Stan and Linwood begin receiving threats from Deane's tough friends, they abruptly take the family on an extended cross-country jaunt, severing Pet and June's contact with a world of relative normalcy. Pet takes the leather book with her and soon begins to encounter a strange man who tells her the book is his and that only its return can save her family from harm. Pet is frightened, for she has looked into its pages and seen illustrations of recent events in her life. She balks, however, at surrendering the book, relenting only when another look into its pages shows the family about to be killed in an automobile accident.
The reader at this point is likely to be struck by several remarkable features, including the book's numerous parallels with "Living in Ether": the insecure narrator, her bullying older sister and ethereal third sibling; the locales in Florida and southern California; the mannered heiress mother and passive father, both called by their first names; the eventual recourse to the supernatural. Even more surprising is Geary's use of the supernatural element. Although one is tempted to read Pet's story as the unreliable narrative of a deeply disturbed girl, it is increasingly made clear that the otherworldly threat she faces must be real. It is highly unusual to find such particularity and stylistic skill in a novel of contemporary horror, and the reader, while admiring Geary's ability to depict the anxieties and obsessions of childhood, may wonder at the point of limning Pet's troubled personality so carefully if her immediate problems do in fact arise from an outside malignant force.
Pet eventually bargains away the book for her family's safety but is cruelly tricked. The novel then jumps to 1967, and later to the early 1980s, showing Pet first as a teen-ager, self-consciously world-weary, enamored of French poets, and desperately unhappy, and then as a self-confident woman who has taken control of her life and resolved to discover the truth about her sister and her past. Although these sections eventually run aground in incoherent melodramatics, they are -- like the book's first part -- beautifully written, creating a knowing, funny voice that conveys with utter conviction a threatening, desirable world as experienced at 9 and 16. More than any other contemporary novelist, even Steven Millhauser and the much-praised David Leavitt, Geary writes of the world of childhood with authenticity, sympathy and an almost perfect ear for the idiom of both a particular year and a child's particular age.
The novel's middle and final sections each conclude with a spectacular visit to a swamp voodoo ceremony, which ends with Pet evidently discovering what became of her sister (although the reader doesn't). Amid a late-in-the-game suggestion that much of this might after all be hallucination, the novel comes to a rather murky close. It almost doesn't matter. "Living in Ether" ended on a similarly inconclusive and finally unsatisfying note, but one reads straight up to it with pleasure and fascination. Geary remains better at narrating than plotting, but her skill with language and character make many better-constructed first and second novels seem tame.
The reviewer regularly reviews contemporary fiction. He is completing a novel called "The Oxygen Barons.