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China, India, England, Canada; NOVELS OF APRIL


Too many American novelists are content to stay at home and write books about the dysfunctional families who live around the corner. Sometimes these domestic dramas are the stuff of good novels, but usually the result is a tired and predictable tale about little events in little worlds.

Part of the problem is that young authors are told to write about what they know, so they churn out novel after novel set in the foul bosoms of their families. Get out more often, you want to say to them. See something of the big world and discover new stories in unfamiliar places. Tell me things I don't know.

Kathryn Harrison is one American novelist who seems anxious to flee the narrow constraints of the domestic tale. After her excruciatingly detailed confession of life with father in the controversial nonfiction bes seller "The Kiss," she has allowed her imagination to travel far from home in "The Binding Chair; or, a Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society" (Random House, 312 pages, $24.95). It is a rich and fascinating tale set in Shanghai at the turn of the century and is full of strange and terrifying lore about the customs of old China.

Like "The Kiss," it deals with forbidden love and the dark powers of ritual. But the epic scope of the book draws out universal themes, and gives the novel a grand resonance that is immensely satisfying. The heroine is a victim of the cruel tradition of foot-binding, and her story is one that involves not only the whole question of women's rights in China, but the nature of sex and love in both the East and West. As a highly erotic and painfully honest exploration of one woman's romantic odyssey, "The Binding Chair" is a brilliant novel that will enthrall readers and expand their range of understanding.

Raj Kamal Jha is a young writer who grew up in Calcutta, but who has spent a good part of his life in America, earning a journalism degree in California and working as a reporter in Los Angeles and Washington. "The Blue Bedspread" (Random House, 209 pages, $21.95) is his first novel and reveals an exciting blend of international influences, from Raymond Carver's spare style to Salman Rushdie's exotic tall tales.

Set during one long night in modern Calcutta, "The Blue Bedspread" is a riveting reflection on Indian society, Indian family ties and the changing face of Asia. The bedspread of the title becomes the focal point of the narrator's attempt to reconstruct his past and to enter an uncertain future. On the night in question the bedspread holds the sleeping form of a recently orphaned child, and around this symbol of India's future the narrator weaves a fine tapestry of stories that address his deepest cultural and personal desires.

Christopher Wilkins' "The Measure of Love" (Carroll & Graf, 198 pages, $21) is a beautifully written romantic tragedy with an unusual twist. The lovers in the case are a couple of English dreamers whose concept of a spiritual and physical union becomes intricately connected to mathematical theory. The man is a student of mathematics at Cambridge University, and his lover is an older woman whose great intellectual talents are rapidly falling victim to mental illness. He cannot save her from destruction, but his love for her leads him to construct a perfect memorial that will be both a sophisticated mechanical device for measuring time and a symbolic measurement of his enduring devotion.

In Philip Kerr's literate thriller "The Shot" (Pocket Books, 374 pages, $24.95) the reader is transported to the strange, and now almost alien, world of Miami in the 1960s. It is a time when the Mob is still a potent force and is still smarting from the loss of Cuban casinos to Castro's revolution. Enter Tom Jefferson, professional rogue and gunman, who is recruited to kill the dictator. But just when the murder plot begins to get off the ground, the supposedly perfect hit man turns into a loose cannon and neither the Mob nor the CIA can control him.

The plot of this intriguing adventure is full of unexpected twists, but the thing that makes it so much fun to read is its marvelous evocation of the early 1960s. Hugh Hefner is expanding his Playboy Clubs, the Chrysler Imperial is the ultimate status symbol and a new color television set is something that Tom Jefferson is willing to kill for. "The Shot" is a wildly imaginative trip back into the past, a page-turner that thrives on a rich mixture of nostalgia and mystery.

Karen E. Bender's "Like Normal People" (Houghton Mifflin, 269 pages, $23) is a distinguished first novel that has already received high praise from Annie Proulx, who included portions of the book in her recent volume of "The Best American Short Stories." It is a remarkably complex work that attempts to explore the lives of three different people in one day. The most important of these characters is a mentally handicapped woman named Lena, whose language and personality are portrayed with enormous sympathy and skill.

Finally, one of Canada's best novelists, Carol Shields, has brought out a new collection of short stories, "Dressing Up for the Carnival" (Viking, 210 pages, $23.95). The stories are quirky and original, and range from the tale of a well-dressed man who plays nudist once a month, to an autobiographical account of an author's life on a grueling book tour. Every story has its gems of polished prose. My favorite is Shields' description of "the ballet-slipper sound of raindrops on the garage roof."

Michael Shelden is the author of biographies of George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

Pub Date: 04/16/00

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