Fiction Chronicle

By Elsa Dixler
Sept. 4, 2005
IN THE PROVINCE OF SAINTS. By Thomas O'Malley. (Little, Brown, $23.95.) If the neighboring farmer's hired man "had touched a drop at all," the teenage hero of "In the Province of Saints" recalls, "he'd be singing -- some familiar Irish song about rebels or emigration and the never never of coming back; songs about the loss of land, the loss of love, but most of all, songs about . . . longing for Ireland." O'Malley's beautifully written first novel also sings many of those songs. Set in rural southeastern Ireland in the late 1970's, it tells the coming-of-age story of Michael McDonagh. Michael roams the fields and rivers when he is not caring for his mother, who is ill with cancer, while his father leaves for Boston to find work and then drinks up his earnings. There is much talk of rain, and ghosts, and the smell of dung, and the reader feels the claustrophobia and hopelessness that coexist with the wild beauty of the land. As Michael grows up, he comes to terms with his family's secrets, both personal and political. In the end we know that he, too, will leave Ireland for good. A familiar Irish song, but the words will break your heart.

44 SCOTLAND STREET. By Alexander McCall Smith. Illustrations by Iain McIntosh. (Anchor, paper, $13.95.) When McCall Smith told an Edinburgh newspaper editor about meeting Armistead Maupin, whose "Tales of the City" had been serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle, the editor challenged him to produce a novel of his own to be published in daily installments. "44 Scotland Street" is McCall Smith's response. In 110 chapters, few longer than two pages, he follows the inhabitants of an apartment building "on the edge of the bohemian part of the Edinburgh New Town, the part where lawyers and accountants were outnumbered -- just -- by others." Pat, a bright woman of 20 who is taking her second "gap year" before college, answers an ad for a room in a flat rented by Bruce Anderson, a real-estate assessor and narcissistic lady-killer; Pat, naturally, falls for him. She takes a job as a receptionist at an art gallery whose hapless owner just as naturally falls for Pat. Other residents of No. 44 represent Edinburgh types, old and new. The short chapters and frequent switches among characters are annoying at first, but eventually the reader settles into the book's rhythms. McCall Smith, the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, is a pro, and he delivers sharp observation, gentle satire and a surprising plot twist as well as the expected romantic complications. It is clear even to an outsider that someone who knows Edinburgh would recognize many people and places in "44 Scotland Street." But an outsider can still relish McCall Smith's depiction of this place "of angled streets and northern light," and enjoy his tolerant, good-humored company.

USER I.D. By Jenefer Shute. (Houghton Mifflin, $23.) Vera de Sica, a resident of the East Village and an adjunct instructor at what sounds like a CUNY college, parks her car in the wrong place on a trip to Los Angeles. She winds up in the hands of an identity thief who uncovers an astonishing amount of information, from Vera's favorite sushi haunt to her mother's maiden name. Charlene Cummins, the reluctant girlfriend of Howie Hoffner, an "entrepreneur of identity," quickly applies in Vera's name for five new credit cards, and begins by buying Louis Vuitton luggage (it's easy to sell on eBay) before undertaking more complicated and damaging scams. Howie wants simply to burn through Vera's credit, but Charlene sees her takeover of Vera's identity as a way out of her troubled relationship. While Charlene wants to become Vera, though, Vera -- unhappy in work and love -- isn't so sure she wants to be herself. Shute, a professor of English at Hunter College and the author of three previous novels, spent three years researching identity theft, and it sometimes shows too obviously. The frequent musings on the meaning of identity become tiresome and the ending seems contrived. I'm not sure that "User I.D." succeeds as a psychological thriller, but it is hideously fascinating, and it may cure you of shopping online.

NAPHTALENE: A Novel of Baghdad. By Alia Mamdouh. Translated by Peter Theroux. (Feminist Press, $23.95.) Mamdouh, a journalist born and educated in Baghdad, left Iraq in 1982, after Saddam Hussein seized power. "Naphtalene," first published in 1986, has been translated into many languages; according to its publisher, it is the first novel by an Iraqi woman to appear in the United States. Set in the Baghdad of Mamdouh's childhood in the 1950's, it describes in poetic, incantatory language the city's domestic life: the women's day at the public bath, children's play in the streets. The events that drive the plot are also domestic: Huda's mother has tuberculosis, and her brutal father, eager for more sons, takes another wife; Huda, a tomboy, is forced as she reaches puberty to wear the abaya, a traditional long black cloak. Around this private world swirl the politics of the 1950's in Iraq: hatred of the British and the monarchy they installed, and support of Nasser. (Huda's grandmother likes Nasser because his voice reminds her of her son's.) Huda's best friend becomes a Communist and hands her a leaflet "like a first forbidden kiss." "Naphtalene" is told from Huda's point of view, usually in the second, but sometimes in the first or third person. These shifts in voice and the movement back and forth in time, combined with the imagistic, occasionally hallucinatory language, make the narrative difficult to follow. Nevertheless, the novel is worth reading at a time when the proposed new constitution would return Iraqi women to the 1950's and subject them to clerical authority rather than civil law.

Q & A. By Vikas Swarup. (Scribner, $24.) When Ram Mohammad Thomas answers 12 questions correctly to win the grand prize on a TV show called "Who Will Win a Billion?" (rupees, that is), he is promptly arrested at the behest of the show's producers, who believe the rupeeless waiter must have cheated. "The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use," as Ram says. In jail, he tells his lawyer stories that explain how he learned each fact. (For example, he knows the name of the smallest planet because he once lived next door to a drunken astronomer who named his daughter's cat Pluto.) These picaresque adventures take place all over India. Along with Ram's ecumenical name, they suggest that our hero is meant to be an Indian Everyman. And he acts like one: although poor and uneducated, he is resourceful and wily. The connections between Ram's tales and the quiz-show questions are clever, but Swarup's prose is flat. Still, Swarup, an Indian diplomat and first-time novelist, writes humorously and keeps the surprises coming. When it is turned into the movie it wants to be, "Q & A" will be a delight.

Elsa Dixler is an editor at the Book Review.