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Novels and stories that tour exotic worlds, from the South Seas to St. Louis and Queens.
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Novels; Books-titles -- -Multiple review
Date: Jun 29, 2003
Start Page: T.07
Section: BOOK WORLD

[Jennifer Vanderbes] sometimes weaves the strands of her narrative too tightly, which makes some events predictable. But she keeps her readers engrossed with the island's unresolved mysteries. Did human or natural forces cause its sudden deforestation? Why did the islanders move and then abandon the moai sculptures they had so painstakingly created? Vanderbes's extensive research into the history of science, palynology (the study of ancient pollen), the Rapa Nui language and the history of exploratory expeditions helps create a rich texture. Like Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal, Vanderbes's narrative builds on the suspense of the past and the drama of nature, transforming the island from a simple setting into a living, breathing character.

Lake Michigan provides the setting for summer love and a clash of cultures in Terry Gamble's disappointing novel, The Water Dancers (Morrow, $24.95). In 1945, 16-year-old Rachel Winnapee, an orphaned Odawa Indian, is sent to work as a maid for the Marches, a wealthy Catholic family that summers on the lake. Constantly reminded that she is a charity case, the headstrong Rachel nonetheless falls in love with Woody, one of the March sons, when he returns from World War II. Woody has been wounded in body and spirit: He is absent a leg, addicted to morphine and haunted by the death of his older brother. Although engaged to a beautiful socialite, he quickly falls for Rachel. Their brief affair, as one might guess, is doomed; and Rachel is left pregnant, heartbroken and angry at the newcomers whose ancestors stole the Odawas' land.

These stories can, on occasion, feel a bit too clever. But most of [Jane Avrich]'s other literary allusions are subtle and gratifying. Some pieces flirt flirt with Kafkaesque themes. In "The Census Taker," civil servant Benedict Beresford is thwarted by the woman in Number 11 Lussiter Lane, who refuses to be counted. Other stories read like modern-day fairy tales. Featuring banshees, gypsies and spiderlike thieves, they delve into the lives of strange, shadowy figures who hover on society's fringes. In "The Charwoman," in which a wealthy Victorian maid leaves her betrothed for a life of picking up trash, and in "Life in Dearth," gypsies lure a naive girl away from her English seaside village. Avrich's concoctions owe a debt to literary history, but she mixes them up in a style entirely her own. Whether she is writing about Victorian England, mythic Zanzibar or contemporary New York, this nimble-footed author balances skillfully between the fantastical and the real. With each new step, she keeps her readers alert and on the edge of their seats.

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