- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

In Ursula Hegi’s newest novel Sacred Time (Touchstone Books, $25, 244 pages), young Anthony Amedeo’s world changes for the worse one Christmas during the 1950s. His aunt and twin girl cousins move in with him and his parents in their Bronx apartment. Quarters are cramped and the atmosphere is less than ideal, even if the family could manage to get along.

Anthony must share his room with the girls and all their fluffy dresses and dolls. His aunt, large and loud, has a bad habit of idling in the tub in the household’s single bathroom and, naturally, does not get along with her sister-in-law, Anthony’s petite and reserved mother.

But these are practical and surface matters that give way to something darker yet more genuine when, with Anthony’s involvement, one of the girls accidentally dies. The girl’s death seems to burn off layers of pretense and though the animosities remain the same, the members of this family reveal themselves to each other for the first time.

The marriage of Anthony’s parents, plagued with infidelity, is a sham, and as for the aunt, she has to wonder if she didn’t marry the wrong man. The reason she and her daughters were forced to move in with her brother and his family in the first place is because her husband, always in trouble, is now serving time for stealing. Could she have made a better life with the best man who served at her wedding?

And what about Anthony? Will he come to terms with his cousin’s death? And, above all, how do guilt and grief combine to shape the survivors?

Ms. Hegi has always gone for the heart in her previous and award-winning works of fiction. Once again, she delivers. She traces one family’s encounter with life’s vicissitudes so convincingly that we come away with the sense that, except for a change of a few details, the same could happen to us.

• • •

The human cost of wartime’s so-called collateral damage is explored in Charlie Johnson in the Flames (Grove Press, $22, 179 pages), a novel by Michael Ignatieff, known better for his nonfiction works on political and moral issues and as director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

Drawing on his own experiences with war, Mr. Ignatieff gives us veteran journalist Charlie Johnson, who can no longer simply stand by and report the action when a woman who shelters him during the war in Kosovo is fiendishly set ablaze by a Serbian officer.

Charlie tries and fails to save her, but his colleague and cameraman has captured the scene on film. Charlie knows the identity of the Serb and now sets out to find and confront him but at the cost of everything he holds dear, including his sense of moral purpose.

As the Serbian colonel, who has escaped all judgment, explains, it is Charlie and not he who bears responsibility for the woman’s death. Wasn’t it Charlie who put her life at risk in the first place by using the woman, whose name he never even bothered to learn, as a shield?

While her death may not have been what Charlie intended, it’s on his hands now. The expediencies of war allow few opportunities for distinctions. Whatever else Charlie and the woman may have been, to the Serb they were the enemy. This comes as stunning news to Charlie, who never considered that acting in favor of the good might possibly have a negative outcome.

In this simply told and compelling story of men and women caught in extraordinary circumstances, Mr. Ignatieff asks us to revisit our notion of good, what it may mean to take action, and how those actions have widespread and sometimes tragic consequences.

• • •

Ayelet Waldman makes a compelling case against America’s anti-drug policy in Daughter’s Keeper (Sourcebooks, $24, 335 pages). As a former public defender in Los Angeles, she has firsthand knowledge of the failure of the legal system to gain substantial ground in the war against drugs.

Miss Waldman could easily have sunk to a polemic. Instead, and to her credit, she focuses on her characters, Berkeley drugstore owner Elaine Goodman and her daughter Olivia, whose Mexican boyfriend Jorge’s involvement in drug dealing leads to her arrest.

Faced with a 10-year prison sentence for doing nothing more than unknowingly fielding a few phone calls, Olivia, who is pregnant, turns to her mother for help. The two have never gotten along and this current challenge is sure to either make or break them.

Standoffish, thoroughly middle-class and disapproving of her daughter’s choice to live as a down-and-out, Elaine is initially reluctant to become involved, but this gradually dissolves when she sees what her daughter is up against.

Olivia’s is a journey through the twisted system of jurisprudence that, incredibly, makes criminals of the unwitting. She faces incarceration and is forced to give up her infant daughter, born during the months of arraignment and trial, while the deal’s actual players escape justice. As Olivia so succinctly puts it before the judge at her sentencing hearing, “I think this war you’re fighting isn’t against drugs at all. I think it’s a war against people.”

Good as her story is, Miss Waldman, wife of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon and best known as the author of the Mommy Track mystery series, has weighted it a bit too heavily with legal procedural matters. More psychological and emotional development would have added dimension to the characters and gained more reader empathy.

That aside, “Daughter’s Keeper” is a good read and offers a dramatized look at our society’s failure in handling one of its biggest threats.

• • •

After only two weeks’ military service Johannes Karelsky, violin prodigy turned soldier in Napoleon’s army, sustains serious wounds when he is run through with a sword on the battlefield at Montenotte in Italy. In Frenchman Maxence Fermine’s novella The Black Violin (translated by Chris Mulhern, Atria Books, $16, 133 pages), this becomes Karelsky’s defining moment.

As he lies near death on the battlefield, a beautiful woman with a golden voice (who may or may not be an apparition) appears and nurses him back to health, but then vanishes. Back on his feet, Karelsky is next billeted in Venice at the home of Erasmus, once a student of famed violin-maker Antonio Stradivari and now himself the city’s finest craftsman and maker of an exquisite black violin.

Karelsky naturally wants to play it, but Erasmus, who has a woman in his past for whom he made his black violin, warns against it. “Once you have tasted it, you will never be the same again,” he says. The black violin has only led to disappointment and loss.

Erasmus’ story is meant to dampen Karelsky’s own longings, but the young musician cannot be dissuaded. Inspired by the woman who saved him, he spends the next 30 years trying to compose the perfect opera, one that only she can sing.

Mr. Fermine’s tale, sparse and delicate, serves as a meditation on the tribulations of love and desire and on the nature of the creative muse.

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

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