An abundance of big, provocative novels has burst forth this spring and while one could save them for summer doldrums, this critic advises: Don't wait.
It's difficult to conceive "In the Fall"(Atlantic Monthly Press, 560 pages, $25) as a first novel -- the saga's complexity and the faultless grace of Jeffrey Lent's language bespeak a seasoned writer. From mysterious prologue to searing ending, this epic tale of interracial relationships spanning Civil War through Depression startles, engages and compels.
At 17, Norman Pelham leaves his family's Vermont farm hoping only to survive his stint in the Union army. Two years later he has -- and also found the love of his life in Leah, the runaway slave and daughter of a white slaveowner who saved Norman's life while risking her own in the war's final days.
Norman's only son, Jamie, does not inherit his father's iconoclasm. Jamie leaves home to try a very different life -- as a white man in an era when passing could be achieved with light skin, pale eyes and studied determination. Jamie, who lives a scoundrel life bootlegging, achieves his goal --so well that his own wife and son don't know the truth. But in the novel's final act Jamie's son Foster traces his family's lineage -- back to Leah -- revealing bitter secrets of a family and a nation.
That this story could well be true -- ask the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings -- only underscores the poignancy of Lent's saga. Lent takes the most calamitous period in American history and breathes sharp, vivid breath into it with his hypnotically beautiful prose.
David MacFarlane's "Summer Gone" (Crown, 288 pages, $24) also deconstructs the relationship between fathers and sons, history and memory. This deeply introspective, non-linear narrative tells the story of magazine editor Bay Newling, his father, Sandy, an insurance adjuster, and Bay's son, Caz.
That's the text. The subtext, which is the tale, explores the meaning of summer -- its richly textured metaphor in the life of a boy, later man, who loved the outdoors passionately, despite his inability to excel within its expanses, because it never disappointed him.
Death stalks "Summer Gone," as does bitter irony, attended by moments of dark comedy and gut-churning pathos. Discontent lies at the heart of the novel. Canadian MacFarlane's territory is Toronto, its tawdry ex-urbs and the lush, wild northern lake country beyond. In this latter, Bay comes of age -- twice over -- and tries to inculcate his son into its mysterious lure; in this land of wood-stippled lakes Bay loses his life, first metaphorically, then literally.
MacFarlane's evocative tale of paradise lost (the woodsy perfection of the canoe giving way to speedboats just as the delineation between city and country blurs into the suburban horror of strip malls and tract housing) will cut deep for anyone who has ever thrilled to the pristine world cell phones cannot reach. Exquisitely written.
The Elian Gonzalez saga echoes the last vestigal cries of the Cold War, but in the years when Harry Gold spied for the Soviet Union, the Cold War was a very real battlefield. In her eponymous novel of a spy's life, "Harry Gold" (Overlook Press, 288 pages, $26.95), veteran biographer Millicent Dillon combines her skills as historian with her flair for language to create a compelling but disturbing book about one of the most unlikely spies of the Cold War.
The unremarkable Gold, a Jewish chemist from Philadelphia, was a bag man for the Soviets -- tailing Klaus Fuchs and Julius Rosenberg and later testifying against both. During the McCarthy era, when treasonous Communists were thought to skulk in every shadow, Gold was the real thing: the spy who loved Russia, whose loyalty landed him a 30-year prison sentence and a soiled and miserable life.
Dillon turns the facts of Gold's life into a Le Carre-esque novel of desire and despair. She tracks Gold, start to finish, depicting the making -- and unmaking -- of a spy. For Gold is a passionate man, the spy who got dragged in from the cold, who wanted only to connect: a nice, meek guy done in by history.
Some may take issue with Dillon's choice of fiction over biography, but she evokes Gold the man and spy so succinctly, with compassion, not sentimentality, that the few liberties she takes with facts only add depth to a portrait deftly drawn.
Jane Smiley's novels, like caviar or brandy, represent an acquired taste. But if you've acquired it, then you will revel in her latest, "Horse Heaven" (Knopf, 600 pages, $26), which explores two years in the tantilizing world of thoroughbred horse racing from myriad perspectives -- including the horses and a rather obstreperous Jack Russell terrier, Eileen.
"Horse Heaven" combines the taut excitement of Dick Francis with the charming anthropomorphism of Anna Sewell for a result that's pure Smiley -- astutely researched and utterly captivating. With a cast of characters that would make a Russian novel look spare -- including wealthy Rosalind Maybrick ("owner" of Eileen), millionaire Kyle Tompkins, National Velvet-in-training Audrey Schmidt, teen jockey heartthrob Roberto Acevedo and the irrepressible Justa Bob, who's been around the track a few times (literally, as a racehorse) -- Smiley has heads spinning faster than numbers at a trifecta.
Neophytes to Smiley's work may feel muddled at first -- it takes a good 100 pages to really catch her rhythm -- but once settled in the saddle, it's a breezy, fascinating ride through the minds, hearts and hands of horses and horse fanciers.
In "Ladysmith" (Knopf, 304 pages, $25), his ambitious novel of the Boer war, British novelist Giles Foden presents the four-month siege of the small African town by Boer forces as one in which the world comes of age in the first truly modern war.
Foden assembles a compelling cast of historical and fictional characters: Leo Keirnan and his daughters Bella and Jane; English soldiers, Tom and Perry Barnes, whose disturbing letters home are based on those of Foden's great-grandfather; Lieutenant Winston Churchill; Indian stretcher bearers, including Mohandes Gandhi; and the Zulu Muhle Maseku, wife Nandi and son Wellington. The contours of this cast shape the future -- World War I, India's independence, the African National Congress (ANC) and in the figure of Bella, the independence of women.
A broad novel with broad ideas, "Ladysmith" sometimes exceeds its own grasp, but in the attempt to explore the confines and expanses of the role of history and historians through the microcosm of one excruciating siege, excels masterfully.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of seven books and editor of nine. Her latest book, "Coming Out of Cancer" (Seal Press), will be published in September. She writes for many national publications.