Retold by

David A. Anderson/SANKOFA.

Sights Productions.

16 pages. $18.95.

When it comes to creation myths, it's a question of whether the chicken or the egg came first: Did people hear of the Biblical creation and embellish it, or did the author of Genesis borrow from ancient myths? Such questions may be best left to theologians. Meanwhile, readers may enjoy encountering in "The Origin of Life on Earth" -- published by Sights Productions of Mount Airy, Md. -- an African creation myth that has been told in the author's family for generations.

In this myth -- which originated with the ancient Yoruba people of West Africa -- Earth is created by a somewhat restless deity named Obatala, who received permission from Olorun, the all-powerful god, to create a world where beings would roam. Obatala wasn't content to transverse the heavens -- he wanted to use his powers. It takes seven days for him to descend from the heavens via a gold chain. With a snail shell full of sand, a bird's egg and a bag of nuts and seeds, he creates the Earth and its inhabitants.

While the story alone would intrigue, children will love the accompanying color illustrations created by artist Kathleen Atkins Wilson. Ms. Wilson uses vivid hues and rich detail to convey the surreal story. Ann Patchett does two difficult things in this debut novel. First, she welds disparate worlds together so that the seam barely shows. There's rootless, contemporary Southern California, complete with a compulsive driver who could be one of Joan Didion's heroines. And there's rural Kentucky, where roots go generations deep and where that same driver's trip ends at St. Elizabeth's, a Catholic home for pregnant girls presided over by a saintly nun who can tell the sex of unborn babies and whether they will live or die.

Second, she achieves a maturity of outlook rare in a young writer, an ability to see beyond her own experience. If her youth shows at all, it's in her belief that passions can last a lifetime, or most of one. Part of this comes from her natural zest as a storyteller; part of it may come simply from believing. This is, after all, a religious book -- not just because it has nuns in it, or because characters wait for a "sign from God" to determine their lives, but because it searches for goodness as stubbornly as other novels search for evil. And finds it, even in unlikely places. Kidnapped by two hippie religious fanatics when she was 4, Laurie Kenyon seemed relatively unscarred by the experience when she was returned to her family two years later. But when her parents die in a car accident, Laurie, now a college student, is so shaken by the trauma that multiple personalities begin to emerge. As a psychiatrist explains to her sister, Sarah, the multiples probably date back to the time of Laurie's abduction and have simply laid dormant for years.

Bic Hawkins and his wife, Opal, Laurie's kidnappers, were never apprehended; now Bic is on his way to becoming one of America's top TV evangelists, and he needs to make sure that his victim doesn't recognize him and thwart his rise to fame. Meanwhile, a popular professor at Laurie's college is killed, and while she has no memory of the crime, her fingerprints are on the weapon and "Leona," one of her alter personalities, had been writing love letters to the murdered man.

Mary Higgins Clark is a master at building suspense, and the scenes in which Laurie's alter personalities emerge during therapy are riveting. But Bic and Opal are shallow, run-of-the-mill religious phonies, with none of the magnificent malice of Ms. Clark's best villains.


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