The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme
By Andreï Makine
Translated, from the French, by Geoffrey Strachan
Arcade, 216 pp., $23
A French nurse stranded in Stalingrad by the catastrophe of war; a jaunty French fighter pilot, escaped from a POW camp, making his way to an airbase in Siberia; a young Russian boy, growing up in a state orphanage during the grotesque twilight years of the Soviet Union: from this trio of characters Andreï Makine (''Dreams of My Russian Summers") orchestrates a symphony, a historical epic rich in romance and tragic irony.
Like soul mates lost and found, the pilot and the nurse stumble on each other in the chaos of a ruined Stalingrad in 1942 and grasp a passionate idyll ''so short," the novel begins, ''that everything will happen to them for both the first and the last time." The pilot must return to the war; the woman must remain marooned in Stalingrad, where, many years later, she tells her story to the boy, who is inspired by it, as if by tales of ancient heroes, to set a different course in life.
Beautifully translated into English from the French of a Russian-born novelist, the narrative is like a set of nesting boxes, each one intricately carved, an object of wonder.
Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner
By M. J. Andersen
St. Martin's, 241 pp., $23.95
Growing up in South Dakota, M. J. Andersen always knew where she was, though it irks her that others can't seem to figure it out. (An Easterner now, she's always being asked how things are back in North Dakota.) Her hometown -- called, with poetic economy, Plainville -- takes shape in the pages of this lyrical memoir as two straight lines, Main Street and the railroad tracks, on an infinity of prairie.
Plainville in the '60s was a cozy place of simple values. As rooted as she felt there, Andersen is not blind to its limitations. The assassination of a president, the Watts riots, she recalls, ''somehow did not concern us here in the country's well-ordered and sensible middle." Her literary ambitions, sprouted in the nurturing soil of a small town on the plains, had to be transplanted to alien ground to thrive.
This ''unsettled Midwesterner" has made a life and a career in the heartless cities of the Northeast, where the sense of centeredness that marked her girlhood has largely eluded her. Thoughtfully, wistfully, in ''Portable Prairie" she comes to terms with the realization that ''home" is the place you can't go again because it isn't really on the map.
By Damon Galgut
Grove, 176 pp., paperback, $13
This taut existential thriller by the South African novelist Damon Galgut divulges little but manages to suggest volumes.
The story begins already in motion, with a desperate man (who?) on the run (why?) across the grasslands of South Africa. He gets a lift from a motorist, who turns out to be an itinerant preacher on his way to a new pulpit.
Feeling threatened, the fugitive kills the minister, hides the body, and drives on to the country town in the guise of the clergyman he has just murdered. Betrayed by the miasma of guilt that envelops him, and by the fortuitous discovery of the body, he flees again into the veldt, pursued this time by a local policeman for whom the chase has become personal.
With stark, almost brutal minimalism, Galgut tells us only as much as we need to know to follow the story. What first set the plot in motion remains a tantalizing mystery. The nameless protagonist is clearly a fugitive from justice, but for what reason? And is it justice that we would recognize as such? Like the hunter, we reach for answers, but they are destined to escape.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.