Small Town, Arctic Race, Artists, mystery.(BOOKS)(FICTION)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Small Town, Arctic Race, Artists, mystery.(BOOKS)(FICTION)


Byline: R.C. Scott, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Memoirist and poet Frances Mayes, who earned wide recognition with her bestselling account of Italian domesticity in "Under the Tuscan Sun," turns her attention from golden Cortona to small-town Georgia in Swan (Broadway Books, $25, 319 pages ), a first novel packed with shadowy Southern gothic atmosphere.

Swan, Ga., the novel's setting, is one of those fabled small Southern towns where everyone, predictably, knows everyone else's business and where the most interesting and pressing business of late is the unexplained exhumation of the body of Catherine Mason who was buried 19 years before and presumed a suicide. But was she? The police suspect otherwise, and when the grisly news reaches Catherine's daughter in Italy, where she works as an archaeologist, Ginger Mason hurries home.

In Italy Ginger was investigating a newly discovered site of the Etruscans, a civilization of which little is known, so she is well-equipped to handle the mystery of her mother's death in Swan where the good citizens, busybodies though they may be, are no more yielding of their secrets. With help from her eccentric brother J.J., who lives reclusively in a cabin and whose collection of arrowheads is an indication of his own interest in the past, Ginger digs beneath the surface of their Southern upbringing to discover that it was not quite as genteel as it appeared.

Jealousy, grudges, and illicit affairs shape their past. As Swan in all its darkness slowly reveals itself to them, Ginger and J.J. come to a better understanding of their parents, of themselves, and of their attachment to the town.

This whodunit is complete with quirky characters, including a spinster aunt and Catherine's mentally failing husband, all of whom Ms. Mayes has drawn with precision. Relying on her accomplishments as a poet (she has published several volumes), and on her own Southern roots, Ms. Mayes gives a vivid and rich portrayal of life in a town that could exist nowhere else but the American South.

* * *

Discovery and exploration are the key ideas in Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston's The Navigator of New York (Doubleday, $27.95, 483 pages ): discovery of self set against the historic race to discover and explore the North Pole.

Mr. Johnston's narrator is Devlin Stead, an outcast and orphan in St. John's, Newfoundland, where his father was remembered as a fool and his mother a suicide. Stead's father Francis was a physician and colleague of arctic explorer Dr. Frederick Cook. When Francis abandons his wife and son and disappears in Greenland, Stead's distraught mother drowns herself, leaving her son in the care of an aunt and an overbearing uncle.

With no prospects in St. John's and worried that his own life will turn out no better, Stead accepts an unexpected offer made by Dr. Cook to come to New York, a city that "is to explorers what Paris is to artists." Cook, it turns out, also knew Stead's mother and is in fact the boy's real father. Guilt-ridden and wanting to make amends, Cook takes Stead under his wing and trains him as his assistant.

The bond between father and son culminates when the two travel to Greenland together to rescue Adm. Robert Peary, stranded in his attempt to reach the North Pole but too stubborn to give up. Cook is every bit as stubborn, and when he hatches a plan to best Peary, Stead becomes his chief defender, even though Cook is discredited when the scheme is later decried as a hoax.

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