- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

To be a great painter takes dedication, passion and talent. The main characters of Patrick McGrath’s new novel Port Mungo (Knopf, $24, 243 pages) have plenty of the first two and varying degrees of the third.

Jack is 17 and an aspiring painter when he meets and falls passionately in love with Vera, a free spirit and an established painter almost twice his age. They leave their native England and run off to New York, and from there to a dusty, dirty Caribbean village, Port Mungo, where they spend the next two decades painting, fighting, drinking and bringing into the world two daughters, Peg and Anna.

From time to time, Vera disappears; she travels, has affairs but always returns. Jack raises Peg and is devastated by the girl’s death in a boating accident, apparently caused by an inebriated Vera. Port Mungo is abandoned.

Back in New York, Jack’s older brother, Gerald, arrives from England and takes little Anna home to Surrey to protect her from her irresponsible parents.

Anna, grown up, returns to New York to discover the truth about her sister’s death. Her parents have separated; neither has had a truly successful career, although Jack’s Caribbean paintings sold well in New York.

The novel ends with surprising violence and retribution. As in Mr. McGrath’s earlier novel, “Asylum,” the story is told through the eyes of a narrator — in this case, Jack and Gerald’s sister, Gin — who remains a poorly defined character, except for her obsessive tie to Jack.

As she remarks towards the end of the novel, “the figure of Vera rose up in my mind, loud, talkative, alert, fearless, engaged — yes, drunk — yes, selfish and irresponsible — and I stood her beside my brother, my serious, secretive, fierce, driven brother — my self-deluded, narcissistic brother — and I thought: There is only one person in the world who can live with Jack Rathbone, and that is me.”

The themes of “Asylum” are repeated in “Port Mungo”: sexual obsession and dependency, immaturity, abandoned children and a curiously unemotional narrator. The erotic relationship between Jack and Vera is presented first through Gin’s eyes and, later, in a fundamentally different version by Vera herself.

Vera withdraws rather than confronts; Jack fabricates and invents; Gin pays the bills, serves as a haven for her nieces and picks up the pieces of emotional disintegration.

“Port Mungo,” like Mr. McGrath’s earlier work, is a good read and a fascinating look into the world of sexual obsession, self-deception, ambition and guilt. But although the themes are deep, the novel remains in the shallows; as is the case with Jack’s paintings, there’s a surface brilliance, but something remains lacking.

• • •

There is an “undefined fear that transplanted people never seem to be able to lose. People who uproot themselves and plant their feet on new soil. People who are permanently marked by memories of another terrain. Immigrants.”

In her lovely new novel, Translations of Beauty (Atria Books, $23, 288 pages), Mia Yun tells the story of twin sisters, Inah and Yunah, immigrants from Korea, who have come to New York with their parents. “Translations of Beauty” is an engrossing tale, a fine blend of poignancy and storytelling.

Beautiful as stars, the little girls were left in the care of their grandmother while their parents worked in Korea. A terrible accident left Inah alive, but with a hideously disfigured face. Mom and Dad believed the girls would have a better chance at life in America, and emigrated to Flushing, New York.

The adult Yunah tells the tale partly in flashback as she visits her twin in Italy for two weeks. Inah has left a promising academic future and started to wander the world alone, in shabby clothes. To her mother and sister, she appears to be desperately lonely.

As the sisters travel from Venice to Florence to Rome, where Inah is currently living, Yunah tries to recreate some of the intimacy they shared growing up on dreary Bowne Street. Yunah tries to understand what has turned her twin’s youthful enthusiasm and iconoclastic behavior inside out. The sisters fight and they weep.

Interspersed with the sisters’ Italian journey are the events of their childhood. Miss Yun includes deliciously amusing vignettes of daily life in the Korean community, as well as the cruel treatment to which Inah is subjected by her classmates and the ostracism experienced by immigrant children who are “different.”

Miss Yun, the Korean correspondent for Evergreen Review, writes with a graceful, poetic lyricism, combined with realistic descriptions of time, place, events and emotions. She does not set ready-made motivations on a plate for the reader, but only suggests the turmoil that inhabits her characters. There is no catharsis, only the beginning of understanding.

Yunah and Inah, like all immigrants, become genuine Americans, with all the sensitivity of the recent past left behind. “Translations of Beauty” is a moving, beautifully-told story of a family that appears lost, but survives.

• • •

There is no doubt that Kaye Gibbons is a master storyteller in the best tradition of Southern writers. While Mrs. Gibbons’ new novel (her seventh), Divining Women (Putnam, $23.95, 207 pages), lacks the exquisite subtlety of some of her earlier work, it is nevertheless a powerful story of fierce, yet gentle women who refuse to be dominated by the culture of the times in general, and the men they share their lives with in particular.

The novel is a story of good and evil, of cruelty and kindness. It is not a tale of subtle shadows but of defined contrasts of light and darkness. “Divining Women” unfolds slowly, with ever-growing momentum, leaving the reader eager to discover “what happens next.”

Mary Oliver, the narrator of “Divining Women,” is a young woman who lives with her free-thinking family in Washington, D.C. In September 1918, she is sent down to North Carolina to be a companion to her aunt Maureen, who is due to give birth to her first child in November of that year.

Maureen, married for five years to Troop Ross, Mary’s mother’s half-brother, has changed from the beautiful, independent woman she was into a fearful, cringing recluse, deathly afraid of displeasing her husband.

Troop appears charming to the world, but is villainous to his wife, whom he belittles for her humble birth and lack of education. He hides her mother’s letters from her, insults her, and forces her to undergo unspeakable early-20th-century treatments for women who were supposedly suffering from “female troubles,” that is, expressing too much independence. These treatments included being locked up in a hospital, beaten with wet towels and threatened with a hysterectomy unless attitudes improved.

When Mary arrives, it appears that Maureen’s only emotional support comes from the black couple who work for Troop — Zollie, the chauffeur, and Mamie, the cook. Mary quickly realizes that her role is not to be only that of companion but also Maureen’s protector against Troop’s malevolence. As Mary opines, “[a] fragile loveliness can wither if the adoration of a man disappears. A woman’s strength can atrophy if her husband stops believing in her, and in her exhausted resignation she will sigh her way through the most routine days.”

Maureen’s struggle with her pregnancy and the cruelty of her husband is mirrored in the rising hysteria over the spread of influenza just before the end of World War I. Zollie and Mamie lose their two sons; they too are treated in a diffident and callous manner by Troop.

The rising animosity between Mary and Troop comes to a head when Maureen’s baby is stillborn. With Mary’s help, anger and hope overcome fear and insecurity in Maureen’s heart and she survives the tragic events of the months of Mary’s visit with new-found strength, able to confront her tormentor.

Troop is beyond redemption. Even his tortured upbringing by an embittered mother cannot excuse his behavior, and Mrs. Gibbons has no sympathy for someone who is, in essence, a tragic figure.

There is the suggestion of a special intimacy between Maureen and Mary that carries over until Maureen’s death many years later. The motto of the women in Mary’s life — her mother, her grandmother and her mother’s long-time friend — is fulfill yourself; do not forget your own happiness. Maureen remembers and triumphs.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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