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Armadillo

William Boyd

Alfred A. Knopf, $24


If you're seeking the escape promised by a good mystery, don't look to British suspense novels: they're too damn literary. In Armadillo, case in point, William Boyd wields gems like "the crumpled duvet was sprawled over the sofa like a Dali watch," as he takes mild-mannered insurance adjuster Lorimer Black through his paces. A business appointment yields a corpse; the Fedora Palace, one of Black's clients, burns; Lorimer becomes besotted with a flirtatious actress married to a brutish juggler; and one of his many obnoxious, untrustworthy colleagues moves in. Duplicity is the rule-according to Lorimer's boss, "All great loss adjusters can spot a liar at once because they understand, at a fundamental level, the need to lie"-and a wonderfully palpable gloom pervades Boyd's London. There is much humor at Lorimer's expense, but he isn't the average beleaguered noir Everyman: he boasts a sleep disorder for which he's studied at the Institute of Lucid Dreams; he hails from a family of Transnistrian Gypsies; and the narrative is studded with entries from the diary he calls The Book of Transfiguration. The plot doesn't completely gel, finally, but a sensibility does: Lorimer's eccentricities-he collects antique helmets, keeps a log of Classic British Caffs-seem less signs of genuine fixation than distractions from the ennui that can accompany a moneyed life in a modern cosmopolitan city.

-Nell Beram

Central Square

George Packer

Graywolf Press, $24.95


Packer's latest novel is set along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, a rough neighborhood filled with homeless shelters, office buildings, and distant strangers at subway stops. Through a trio of characters given to self-doubt, Packer asks critical questions of modern urban existence-what is community? and how do we make one? Eric is failing to write a novel crucial both to his literary career and to his family's financial security, and his wife abandons him for pregnancy. In his desperation he begins an affair with Paula, a therapist who cares for her troubled patients and alcoholic mother in order to alleviate her own sense of disenfranchisement. Joe is an African-American who pretends to be African only to lose his identity to the scam. These characters come together and intertwine through The Community, an insane political group with a platform built on the idea that "every other institution in our lives has failed us." The group leader's psychobabble ranting is reminiscent of passages in Dostoevsky. Though flawed by contrived plot coincidences and some flat dialogue, Central Square achieves brilliance in its characters' surging emotions, its analysis of urban life, and its moral vision. In the end, the novel provokes us to reflect on isolation and the hope for renewal. Or as Packer assesses one character: "In her cubicle there was enough room for a community of two. At least they had each other."

-Camille Renshaw

The Hours

Michael Cunningham

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22


In alternating chapters, The Hours tells the stories of three women living through a day, each in a different decade of the twentieth century and a different city, their only link a book by Virginia Woolf. Woolf is herself one of the women, recreated with biographical precision in Richmond in 1923, as she begins work on a novel (tentatively called The Hours) about a woman buying flowers for a party she is giving. In a prologue we are told that Mrs. Woolf drowned herself in March, 1941. Cut to 1949, when a dreamy young woman named Laura Brown leaves her home and young boy in suburban Los Angeles to spend an afternoon alone in a hotel room reading the book Woolf finished and titled Mrs. Dalloway. And on a beautiful June morning in New York, in the late 1990s, a fiftyish woman named Clarissa (nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by a poet, dying of AIDS, whom she loves) is buying flowers for a celebration she is having that evening. Virginia's day will be the most ordinary of the three, Laura's will foreshadow a life of running away, Clarissa's will end in tragedy and revelation-and will parallel Mrs. Dalloway's in haunting, poignant ways. Cunningham writes with a rare mix of passion and delicacy. The reader who spends a day with The Hours will find a shimmering convergence of lives so profoundly realized that they almost slip out of the book and enter one's own chronology.

-Randall Curb

Fields of Peace: A Pennsylvania German Album

Photographs by George Tice

Text by Millen Brand

David R. Godine, $45


Here is a book about the Amish which avoids reducing its subject matter to anachronism or museum-bound quaintitude. Now in a crisp new edition with foreword by Sue Bender, Fields of Peace is a truthful and affectionate portrayal of the Amish community. The black-and-white photographs demonstrate an unblinking sincerity and broadness of tone. Tice's eclectic vision captures gawky children and blighted winter crops, as well as misty fields and abundant acres of corn, all shrouded in benign stillness. In one image, a scrubbed, sincere-looking couple stand statue-like on their porch, recalling Grant Wood's "American Gothic"; in another, five children tranquilly interrogate the camera. Millen Brand's text perfectly complements Tice's wide-ranging photographs. A writer with Amish ancestry on his mother's side, Brand captures Pennsylvanian life from many angles. He writes history in lucid, lean prose, offset by vivid details: traditional barn-paintings are "outlines of non-existent windows . . . for witches to fly into and break their necks." Fields of Peace is an honest chronicle of Pennsylvanian-German life. Lovers of European and American history, the American countryside, and fine photography will no doubt draw inspiration from its pages.

-Chloë Veltman

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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