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Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
September 6, 2009

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ONCE ON A MOONLESS NIGHT
By Dai Sijie
Translated, from the French, by Adriana Hunter.
Knopf, 288 pp., $24.95

From layers upon layers Dai Sijie (author of “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’’), in elegantly translated French, assembles an intricate and affecting legend of love, loss, and intellectual obsession.

On one level the story begins in 1978, when the central narrator, a young Frenchwoman studying in Beijing, meets an elderly man who starts her on an intriguing scholarly journey. On another level the story traces an elusive regression through centuries of Chinese history. The Holy Grail of this multilayered quest is an ancient silken scroll inscribed in a little-known Himalayan language, allegedly torn in half in a fit of anguish and thrown from an airplane by China’s exiled Last Emperor. The French student’s chief guide in her journey of discovery is a green grocer whose name, whose heritage is finer than it would appear.

While the thread of the story pulls us through the maze of the plot, it is the sensual descriptive ornamentation that most enchants, as the author’s imagination ranges from Beijing’s teeming market stalls to a remote prison camp and from an austere Burmese monastery to the luxurious decadence of an emperor’s bath.

OXFORD REVISITED
By Justin Cartwright
Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $18

Like many a colonial subject before him, Justin Cartwright arrived from South Africa at the gates of Oxford in the mid-1960s, a graduate student entering the womb of the university in order to be reborn a genuine Englishman.

Returning 40 years later, a Londoner now and a well-regarded novelist, he feels the same old sensations creep up and seize him: the intoxicating awareness of gaining admittance to a charmed life; the nostalgia for the ineffable Oxford experience. Seated in the dining hall of his old college, Trinity, basking vicariously in the glow of the college president’s impeccably witty welcome to a new generation of arriving students, Cartwright thinks, “How easily I slip into this self-congratulatory, clubby mode.’’ Then he quietly bursts into sentimental tears.

“Oxford Revisited’’ is actually a derailed assignment: Cartwright was supposed to write about the city of Oxford, which he generally ignores, airily declaring it to be one and the same with the university. We’d learn more about the town from one of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries. Nevertheless, this autobiographical meditation provides rewards of its own for the armchair Anglophile.

THE SOUTHERN CROSS
By Skip Horack
Mariner, 224 pp., paperback, $13.95

This engrossing collection of short stories, some barely a page in length, is set in the hardscrabble South, along the Gulf Coast just before and after the apocalyptic hurricane season of 2005. But Skip Horack has no moral to preach, no ax to grind. Beyond their artfully evoked and deeply felt sense of place, if these stories are about anything, they are about the characters who inhabit them, easily and profoundly.

The collection opens with a wry “glory days’’ narrative about a former high school football hero half stunned and half amused that his life has so quickly come down to this: a busted marriage, a disabled child, and occasional furtive fumblings with teenage temptresses in his pickup truck. Horack sensitively depicts a VA nurse recklessly in love with a patient; a beekeeper who can imagine a marginally different life but can’t imagine it happening to him; an independent-minded elderly lady acclimatizing on her own terms to a genteel retirement community. And in one story no longer than an Aesop’s fable and just as pungent, an exotic dancer has an encounter with a Bible-thumping hypocrite and comes out the clear - and very funny - winner.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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