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'Burning Marguerite' full of emotional tension

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2002

Fire and ice are the presiding elements over "Burning Marguerite" (Knopf, $23), a powerfully conceived first novel by Elizabeth Inness-Brown, the author of two highly regarded books of short stories, "Satin Palms" and "Here."

Inness-Brown was raised in upper New York State and now lives on an island in Lake Champlain, Vermont, and her depictions of her fictional Grain Island, with its contrary elements of weather and terrain, evoke the human emotions that drive her story.

At a time when film chronology has become one of the most interesting features in storytelling, in films like "Memento" and "The Usual Suspects" and "Reservoir Dogs," this novel, though far tamer in subject matter, achieves a strong emotional tension and suspense through the way it orders blocks of time.

The story opens with the discovery by James Jack Wright of his aged Tante, Marguerite Deo, lying dead on the frozen ground outside her house.

James cannot understand what could have brought Marguerite, still in full possession of her mind and will at 94, out onto such a wintery night.

Preceding this opening section is a short, italicized, untitled prologue narrated it seems by the deceased herself — "Like a seed, I lie here on the ground" — describing a bird that perches on her arm, and begins to peck. As in a ballad of old (and as in another, recent, excellent novel, Ohran Panuk's "My Name Is Red") the corpse gets to tell its own tale, announcing the themes that will dominate the story: fire and ice and fire in ice, spring in winter, death in life, and life in death.

Marguerite picks up the narrative again after James Jack finds her body and, for reasons not yet understood by the reader, fails to report her death, in fact seems to be making every attempt to conceal it.

Marguerite next speaks to "you," James Jack, about how she came to be his Tante, when he was 4 and she was 63. His parents lived nearby in the woods, and his mother would leave him with Marguerite while she worked.

When both parents die in an accident on the lake, Marguerite adopts James Jack — under circumstances that are revealed as the novel goes along.

Marguerite had left the island when she was very young, for reasons once again revealed only over the course of the narrative. And for a time she had lived in New Orleans. In the islanders' minds, she knows, she had shamed and abandoned her well-to-do parents, and then after their deaths come back to the island to claim her inheritance.

This careful interweaving of past and present, of a death and of the life that preceded it, is masterfully conceived and structured, and "Burning Marguerite" is a moving, satisfying, and deeply affecting love story. As a first novelist, Inness-Brown is blessedly free of pretentiousness and gimmickry, and her prose reflects the hard life and plain speech of her Grain Island, "once Ile de Grain, by which its first French inhabitants meant Squall Island, an intention the officials who anglicized the name had failed to reflect. It was an island known for wind, not wheat."

"Burning Marguerite" has some affinity with recent novels such as Elizabeth Strout's "Amy and Isabelle" (1998) and Kent Haruf's "Plainsong" (1999) and with the film "Songcatcher," each of them portraying a ragtag and improvised set of relationships that reflect today's looser, more multicultural sense of personal and community values.

"Burning Marguerite" is also one of a growing number of good novels and films that reexamine the bigotries of the past, not only with outrage and a sense of injury, but with the affirmation that justice is eventually served, that good, and the good in people, endures and will eventually prevail, even though it might take generations.

David Walton, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, is the author of the short story collection "Evening Out," winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award.

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