- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

Memoirist and poet Frances Mayes, who earned wide recognition with her bestselling account of Italian domesticity in "Under the Tuscan Sun," turns her attention from golden Cortona to small-town Georgia in Swan (Broadway Books, $25, 319 pages ), a first novel packed with shadowy Southern gothic atmosphere.
Swan, Ga., the novel's setting, is one of those fabled small Southern towns where everyone, predictably, knows everyone else's business and where the most interesting and pressing business of late is the unexplained exhumation of the body of Catherine Mason who was buried 19 years before and presumed a suicide. But was she? The police suspect otherwise, and when the grisly news reaches Catherine's daughter in Italy, where she works as an archaeologist, Ginger Mason hurries home.
In Italy Ginger was investigating a newly discovered site of the Etruscans, a civilization of which little is known, so she is well-equipped to handle the mystery of her mother's death in Swan where the good citizens, busybodies though they may be, are no more yielding of their secrets. With help from her eccentric brother J.J., who lives reclusively in a cabin and whose collection of arrowheads is an indication of his own interest in the past, Ginger digs beneath the surface of their Southern upbringing to discover that it was not quite as genteel as it appeared.
Jealousy, grudges, and illicit affairs shape their past. As Swan in all its darkness slowly reveals itself to them, Ginger and J.J. come to a better understanding of their parents, of themselves, and of their attachment to the town.
This whodunit is complete with quirky characters, including a spinster aunt and Catherine's mentally failing husband, all of whom Ms. Mayes has drawn with precision. Relying on her accomplishments as a poet (she has published several volumes), and on her own Southern roots, Ms. Mayes gives a vivid and rich portrayal of life in a town that could exist nowhere else but the American South.

Discovery and exploration are the key ideas in Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston's The Navigator of New York (Doubleday, $27.95, 483 pages ): discovery of self set against the historic race to discover and explore the North Pole.
Mr. Johnston's narrator is Devlin Stead, an outcast and orphan in St. John's, Newfoundland, where his father was remembered as a fool and his mother a suicide. Stead's father Francis was a physician and colleague of arctic explorer Dr. Frederick Cook. When Francis abandons his wife and son and disappears in Greenland, Stead's distraught mother drowns herself, leaving her son in the care of an aunt and an overbearing uncle.
With no prospects in St. John's and worried that his own life will turn out no better, Stead accepts an unexpected offer made by Dr. Cook to come to New York, a city that "is to explorers what Paris is to artists." Cook, it turns out, also knew Stead's mother and is in fact the boy's real father. Guilt-ridden and wanting to make amends, Cook takes Stead under his wing and trains him as his assistant.
The bond between father and son culminates when the two travel to Greenland together to rescue Adm. Robert Peary, stranded in his attempt to reach the North Pole but too stubborn to give up. Cook is every bit as stubborn, and when he hatches a plan to best Peary, Stead becomes his chief defender, even though Cook is discredited when the scheme is later decried as a hoax.
Mr. Johnston earlier work, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," was widely praised as the big novel of Newfoundland and a high water mark in Canadian literature. This new novel is just as hefty, and with its lush descriptions and its pointed studies of character into which Mr. Johnston has artfully woven the history of polar exploration, it's the perfect adventuresome read.

Kate Braverman, best known for her short stories, turns to the novel this time to tell the imagined biography of artist Frida Kahlo, wife of famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera. In The Incantation of Frida K. (Seven Stories Press, $23.95, 235 pages) Ms. Braverman journeys inside the artist's head, taking her inspiration from Kahlo's surrealist paintings to evoke the circumstances that molded the artist and defined her work.
As she lays on her deathbed at age 46, Kahlo recounts her struggles to overcome the physical wounds she sustained as the result of a streetcar accident when she was 17, and the psychological wounds she endured at the hands of Rivera who, when he wasn't mocking her work or insulting her, betrayed her with other women.
Negative and unforgiving though they are, both influences are integral to Kahlo's being, twin forces that fuel her independent artist's spirit. It is this same spirit that allows Kahlo to survive the dangerous alleys and opium dens of San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1920s, and the worldly artistic gatherings in Paris in the 1930s where she should have been out of her element. But Kahlo is nothing if not self-possessed, and when she meets that other famous misogynist Pablo Picasso, it is her privilege if not her duty to snub him.
Ms. Braverman has obviously researched the artist's life, but it is her imagination that gives credibility to Kahlo's rich interior existence and brings the artist to life as an entity complete and separate from her more famous husband. Told in the author's style of short, direct sentences meant to jab and poke at any signs of reader complacency, Kahlo's is a troubling story, but it is also a powerful story of transcendence and survival.

Chance is everything in Jeffrey Moore's debut novel Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain (Putnam, $24.95, 385 pages ) when Jeremy Davenant realizes that his life is unfolding in accordance with a page ripped randomly and years before from an encyclopedia.
On that page are entries for a Zulu king, a Ukrainian mining town, the heroine of an Indian love epic, and William Shakespeare, all of which, in one form or another, make their way into his life. He ends up at a university teaching Shakespeare, for instance, and living in an apartment owned by Ukrainians. But when he falls for a mysterious Indian woman who's more than he can handle, Davenant becomes convinced that his destiny truly has been written on The Page. The question then becomes, what was on the next page and how will it all turn out?
Quirky, inventive, and funny in spots, Mr. Moore's novel, which was a prize-winner in his native Canada, pays tribute to the role, larger than often we'd like to admit, that happenstance plays in our lives.

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


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