- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Nine complex and interconnected tales make up British author David Mitchell's engaging new novel Number9Dream (Random House, $24.95, 400 pages) in which a young Japanese man named Eiji Miyake scours Tokyo in search of his missing father.
When his twin sister dies and his mother suffers a nervous collapse, Eiji, alone and with little to lose, sets out from his tiny village in Japan's outer reaches. As he soon discovers, there are no distances in the big city, whether psychic or geographical, and everything, from the skyscrapers to the fast paced lifestyle, is compressed, instantaneous, and "above your head."
As in Homer's "The Odyssey," in which a son searches for his father, Eiji faces a series of challenges not the least of which includes confronting the gangsters who might be keeping them apart. Computer hackers and suicide cases, like the Sirens and other temptations in the ancient Greek myth, lure him off course. Besides them, Eiji also encounters God on a surfboard, and struggles to decipher the oracular messages he receives instead of cash from the ATM machines.
Layered over this tale is the surreal presence of John Lennon. Mr. Mitchell has taken his novel's title from one of the songs on the former Beatles' enigmatic 1974 album "Walls and Bridges." Inventive and vividly imagined, Mr. Mitchell's novel, a finalist for Britain's Booker Prize, is a weird take on the ancient tale and not for the literal-minded.

In Salt (Picador USA, $25, 349 pages), Isabel Zuber traces the story of Anna Bayley of Faith, N.C., who carves a life for herself and her family in the early years of the 20th century.
Intelligent but with little formal education and few opportunities for advancement, Anna enters domestic service and experiences firsthand the degree of disparity that exists between Asheville's haves and have-nots. When she decides to carve out a life for herself, she marries twice-widowed farmer John Bayley, mothering his young children plus those she has with him. Their marriage is stormy and their poverty grinding, but tough-minded Anna is determined that they'll have a better life.
When they move over the mountain into Tennessee, where the children can go to a better school and John can farm better land, their new neighbors prove to be an unexpected obstacle. John's philandering only makes matters worse. When Anna falls ill and dies prematurely, the family's resilience is stretched to the limit. But Anna's spirit prevails.
Miss Zuber, who has two collections of poetry to her credit, brings her poet's precision to this first novel, to give an exacting and moving account of courage, persistence, and the power of family.

Everything changes for young Alice Daggett in Katherine Towler's Snow Island (MacAdam/Cage, $25, 287 pages). An outpost in the Atlantic off the New England coast, Snow Island is full of eccentrics whose chief interests are involving themselves in the lives of their neighbors and quahogging, or digging for clams. For a young girl coming of age in the 1940s, this quaint if somewhat isolated community offers an idyllic existence.
When her father is drowned, Alice is forced to take her first step into adulthood, helping her mother in the general store they operate. The start of World War II brings still more changes, not only for Alice, but for the other islanders as well who find themselves forced to participate in the larger world community. Many of the men leave the island to enlist, but even more servicemen arrive, strangers from the vast mainland stationed on Snow Island to help protect the American coast.
Alice's experience forces her into womanhood where she confronts both personal loss and the impending birth of her child. To help her over the hurdle, she finds solace in a most unlikely source, the reclusive George Tibbit, survivor of the horrors of World War I, whose compassion and generous spirit become a model for Alice. Nicely told, "Snow Island" is a quiet, coming-of-age story minus the romance that can sometimes infect and spoil the remembered past.

Mary Poppins enters the age of the post-nuclear family in The Nanny Diaries (St. Martin's, $24.95, 306 pages) by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Based on their own trials and tribulations as nannies, the authors trace the ordeal of one Nan, in service to Mr. and Mrs. X, among Manhattan's wealthier, and charged with the care, feeding, and entertainment of their son Grayer.
The kid presents his own challenges, but it's Mrs. X who's the piece of work. She's scheduled every breath of her son's life piano, swimming, French, and ice skating lessons, plus trips to the Frick, the Met, the New York Stock Exchange Trading Floor, and even sessions with a physical therapist and an Ayurvedic practitioner. The kid's only four-years-old, but Mrs. X, who fills her days with charity work and flitting from spa to spa, doesn't see why pre-consciousness should be an obstacle to his enrichment.
She also doesn't see why a nanny should be just a nanny. Our Nan, who receives her instructions from Mrs. X via voice mail and friendly little epistles, also learns to wrangle caterers for dinner parties, handle wardrobe problems, and fetch endless bottles of lavender linen water.
Mr. X is no prize either. Between mergers and acquisitions, he plays tennis, complains to his wife about his son's tuition bills, and squeezes in an affair. "Get out of this relationship while you still have a pulse!" Nanny advices the other woman, "there is nothing good here."And there isn't.
Smart and sharp, "The Nanny Diaries" is certainly entertaining, but beyond this amounts to no more than an evening spent in the company of the self-absorbed.

R. C. Scott is a writer in Alexandria, Va.


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