Spanidou's 'Fear': Minds at stake


"Fear," by Irini Spanidou. Knopf. 182 pages. $21.

Irini Spanidou's "Fear" involves at least two wonderful activities. Foremost, of course, is reading it. Please do so under the bedclothes, by flashlight -- if, like me, you can recall sneaking past the Young Adult section of the neighborhood library to secrete your flat-T-shirted self in a dim corner of Adult Fiction. Decades gone, the thrill returns.

The second wonderful thing is trying to categorize this book. The project flashes one's whole life-as-a-reader before her. I say "her" because one category is certain: "Fear" is a woman's book, though, like many such, it would do a man a world of good to read it; indeed, one of the central issues is what it means to possess "the soul of a man."

"Fear" taps into the Grimmest fairy tales' myths of murderous rivalries between sisters or sister-substitutes: it's Snow White and Rose Red developing breasts and body hair. It gives us pubescents with unchildish, un-innocent intellects and talents, recalling both Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" -- shorn of the supernatural -- and Noel Streathfield's superb series of older-children's books that began during World War II with "Ballet Shoes."

"Fear" shows us pairs of parents as neglectful and controlling as the shadowy European aristocrats in Ludwig Bemelman's underpraised adult novel "Are You Hungry Are You Cold."

Such parents belong to "Fear's" young protagonist Anna and to Vera, her mortal frenemy (a term coined by the preteen who accompanied me to Adult Fiction so long ago). Anna and Vera are sworn comrades and arch-rivals who, despite their being Greek and living in 1950s Athens, seem to belong to the same dead-serious girlfriends' club as Tony Morrison's African-American "sisters" Sula and Nell ("Sula," 1973).

Spanidou makes us believe that Anna learns her coping mechanisms by reading Marcus Aurelius, much as Morrison makes us believe Sula chops off the tip of her own finger to scare a gang of white boys with her nerve. Anna and Vera participate in a highly sexed yet not quite sexual rivalry, a rivalry youthful enough to be a battle in which the stakes are minds, not men. Anna, like Sula, is unmistakably a conqueror; the suspense comes with questions of how she learns to understand her power, how to use it to best advantage, and how many weaker people will lie in her wake.

As an adult reader who also writes, I see another issue in categorizing "Fear": is it a novel, or is it the middle of a longer work? Its publishers call it "the new novel by the author of the much praised "God's Snake": " now, as Anna turns 13, she is assaulted by a new rush of fears and confusions." Yet "God's Snake" came out as a Vintage paperback (unavailable in an earlier edition) several weeks after I finished reading "Fear." Since my one major quarrel with the latter is that it left me without a sense of resolution, I look forward to the next installment.

I want to see Anna vanquish her army-officer father -- a more awesome figure of fear than the serial killer who gives the novel its name. I want to see her do more than sweat in her "stupendous" new fuchsia-pink dress.

Clarinda Harriss chairs the English Department at Towson University, where she teaches writing. Her poetry and short fiction appear in many U.S. magazines, including "Poetry" and "Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women." She edits and directs BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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