- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

Karakarook, New South Wales, Australia. A town so remote as to be beyond the back of beyond. A town so inconsequential as to seem as if it has just "slid down into the bottom of the valley." A place "bleached with heat" and so desolate that even the dogs "stretched out lifeless." And the place where Australian author Kate Grenville has set her newest novel The Idea of Perfection (Viking, $24.95, 401 pages).
It is here that Harley Savage, quilting expert with three failed marriages to her credit, has come to help establish a heritage museum. When she meets Douglas Cheeseman, a gawky and jug-earred engineer in town for the purpose of demolishing a quaint and quasi-historic bridge, the two practically come to blows.
With her tough-nut attitude, she knows she could steamroller this sniveling coward, but she doesn't. They have more in common than at first it might appear, and when they both realize how they might assist each other, their mutual spirit of cooperation draws out their better qualities and develops into something more personal and complex. Miss Grenville, one of Australia's most popular writers and winner last year of Britain's prestigious Orange Prize for this work, delivers a seamless romance with few distractions, not the least of which is the bare-bones setting, and in a straightforward prose style to match.

In Mr. Potter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20, 195 pages), prize-winning Caribbean author Jamaica Kincaid, tells the story of an illiterate taxi driver who lives and dies on the island of Antigua. Abandoned by his fisherman father and given away by his mother who then commits suicide, Mr. Potter's is a small and seemingly disposable life, but it is not an insignificant life, nor does it pass without meaning. Told from the point of view of his daughter whom he does not know and whose genealogical details she invents, his life is revealed episodically.
Through his struggle to obtain a car, and his affairs with several women the book is pieced together and padded where necessary to make, if not the whole, then some satisfying facsimile. The narrator, as has anyone who has ever imagined the life of a preceding and crucial family member when there is little or nothing to go on, finds her own footing in the life she imagines for her father. It is through his imperviousness to all the transgressions in his life, whether done to or by him, that she discovers the source for her own inherited strengths.
Insightful and engaging, Miss Kincaid, whose "The Autobiography of My Mother" dealt similarly with family and won wide critical acclaim, delivers an unsentimental account of human suffering sadly endemic to her native region.

In Jeffrey Lent's newest novel Lost Nation (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 370 pages) a man named Blood undertakes a mission to deliver an oxcart loaded with gunpowder, lead, a swivel gun, several bolts of fabric and "twin hogsheads of black Barbados rum" to the wilds of northern New Hampshire, untamed during the 1830s and declaring itself an independent nation. Accompanying him is 16-year-old Sally, won during a card game from the madam of a brothel in Maine.
What the two intend is to make a fresh start in this ungoverned territory called the Indian Stream, though the relationship between them is too freighted with their personal pasts to allow a blank slate.
When local violence escalates, the outside authorities are drawn in resulting in Blood's capture, affording Sally the only opportunity she has for freedom. Mr. Lent, whose first novel In the Fall won many readers, follows with a story drawn from little known historical facts to deliver an engrossing and spirited tale of early American backwoods resilience.

Abandoned by her mother whose new boyfriend resents her, five-year-old Sharla Coy takes up residence with seventy-year-old Addy Shadd in Lori Lansens' first novel Rush Home Road (Little, Brown and Company, $23.95, 387 pages). The two share a trailer outside Chatham, Ontario where Addy, crippled by a bad hip and the bitter memories of a troubled past, rises to the challenge the little girl poses by responding with an open heart to Sharla's call for love and attention.
The needy child's presence also prompts Addy to not only revisit the events of her own life, but, for the first time and with the advantage of age, to make sense of some of the crueler circumstances surrounding them.
Addy grew up in the Canadian town of Rusholme, settled by fugitive slaves who arrived in the 19th century by way of the Underground Railroad. Although the town was founded on the idea of freedom, Addy learned the hard way that freedom has its limits when she was cast out after the death of her baby boy. Miss Lansens, who is primarily a screenwriter, brings a cinematic sensibility, rather than a literary one, to this pairing of young and old, so that the story moves swiftly, seldom venturing beneath the skin of its characters where perhaps more of their truths may lie.
Washington, D. C. novelist Christina Bartolomeo, who made an impression with her first novel "Cupid and Diana," returns with The Side of the Angels (Scribner, $23, 302 pages), the story of Nicky Malone, young, sensible, principled, but ensnared against her better judgment in the shameless doings of what passes otherwise for public relations. When a big health-care organization tries to save face while forcing a small Catholic-run hospital to yield to its unsavory ways, Nicky finds herself standing off against the bad guys and trying to lion-tame the out-of-control nurses' strike that results.
This puts her back in the ring with her ex-beau Tony Boltankski, insufferable flagellating union champion. Whatever it was that Nicky saw in this smug martyr to start with is just enough to begin the trouble between them all over again. Nicky also must contend with her nag of a mother, who relentlessly presses her daughter to marry; her scheming boss, quick to make commitments for Nicky that she can't possibly fulfill; and her assistant for whom the world is filled with nothing but connivers and back-stabbers.
Add to this trying bunch two cousins, smitten with one another but incapable of acting on behalf of themselves and in constant need of Nicky to run interference. But never fear, Nicky Do-Gooder to the rescue. And for her triumph over all manner of petty adversity this girl scout deserves nothing less than the full compliment of merit badges.
R.C. Scott is a writer in Alexandria, Va.

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