By Alice Hoffman
Doubleday, 225 pp., $19.95
''Blackbird House," Alice Hoffman's 22d book, presents a sensual, socially complex history of a town on the ''far reaches of the Cape." The segmented novel stretches from Colonial farming days to contemporary summer cottage nights. Self-contained story-chapters follow people residing in or near a special house that offers a scent -- but no sight -- of the sea. ''The farm was only a mile from the closest shore, but it sat in a hollow, with tall oaks and scrub pine and a field of sweet peas and brambles nearby."
Lush, figurative language evokes epics, ballads, odes, and fairy tales. Human destiny is determined less by individual initiative or moral choice than by fate. To survive and thrive, one must pay heed, one must be attentive to season, history, spirit.
Hoffman aficionados will feel at home as they enter this small New England community via her signature luxuriant natural depictions and enticing nods to the supernatural. The book's structure -- a dozen connected/disconnected tales -- recalls previous Hoffman fictions, ''The Probable Future," about 13 generations of magical women in Massachusetts, and ''Local Girls," about family and friendship on Long Island. Fragmented novels, like similarly anomalous literary forms -- cross-genre narrative, the novella, micro-fiction -- stimulate readers through irregular shapes. Other recent examples of disruptive forms include Randall Kenan's ''Let the Dead Bury Their Dead," a brilliant fictional account of rural North Carolina society, and Ellen Bryant Voight's ''Kyrie," a stunning set of interconnected poems about the early 20th-century flu epidemic. The device of genre-bending gestures to a diverse literary heritage while transgressing popular convention, interrupting readers' expectations about character, plot, reality, dream, time, and eternity.
''The Edge of the World" introduces ''Blackbird House," surrounding landscape, and local families whose descendants inhabit subsequent stories. This first chapter establishes frame, setting, and atmosphere. ''Every May, the women in town gathered at the wharf. No matter how beautiful the day, scented with new grass or spring onions, they found themselves wishing for snow and ice, for gray November, for December's gales and land-locked harbors, for fleets that returned, safe and sound, all hands accounted for, all boys grown into men. . . . This year the fear of what might be was worse than ever, never mind gales and storms and starvation and accidents, never mind rum and arguments and empty nets."
Coral Hadley, the original matriarch of Blackbird House, holds vigil for her husband and two sons long after their vessel disappears, refusing to accept evident loss. This opening tale of archetypal grief and unpredictable redemption casts a fey charm over the house and future residents. Coral survives fear and loneliness. She is comforted by a bounty of succulent turnips and fragrant sweet peas, and she is disturbed by a pesky blackbird whose feathers have turned an eerie white.
Some years later, former sailor Lysander Wynn, his leg lost to a fierce halibut, buys Blackbird House and surrenders to secluded self-pity. Then Susan Crosby and Easter West bring over Ruth, a woman traumatized by the loss of her parents and farm. This piece, ''The Witch of Truro," and the next, ''The Token," chronicle an unlikely, passionate attraction between two recluses. Lysander declares, ''I'll get you anything you want." Ruth replies, ''Bring me a tree that has pears the color of blood. The exact same color as my shoes."
Numinous and mythic forces haunt the generations. The enchanted aura of Blackbird House is augmented by blood-red pears, clairvoyants, ghosts, hidden treasures, sea monsters, other talismanic animals, and further signs from above or below or beyond. Also threading through these stories are the metaphorical refrain of love as an anchor and references to ''The Odyssey" and ''The Practical Navigator." Coral's flowers and root vegetables and Ruth's fruit trees please, nourish, and bedevil subsequent residents.
Years pass. Civil War ensues. The 19th century turns into the 20th. World wars ignite and end. ''Lionheart" and ''The Conjurer's Handbook" explore Violet West's fierce devotion to her son Lion and her grandson, Lion Junior, through currents of departure and return (currents similar to those traveled by Coral Hadley). ''The Conjurer's Handbook" demonstrates Hoffman's dramatic flair. ''Dorey pulled Violet West out of the pond where the ice turned so many colors Lion always said you could spend a lifetime trying to catalogue every shade. Both women were so cold they were gasping, open-mouthed, like fish. They were drenched, to the flesh, to the soul, and Dorey's feet were bluer than before, like the ice in the center of the pond, the midnight color Lion liked best."
The less satisfying chapters rely more on didactic parable than evocative story: a neglected son commits suicide; a dissatisfied housewife recognizes her good fortune; a sardonic girl fails to appreciate her father until it is too late.
The other tales are painted with a lighter, more allusive brush, and the book ends with two winning chapters. The landscape may have evolved, but the spirits persist. An old-timer explains to her new neighbor, ''Your boy's not the first to have seen the bird. Supposedly, it was the pet of the sailor boy who lived in your house. The poor boy went off to sea with his father and he never came back. But the blackbird did. Or at least, that's what people say."
Blackbird House has no fixed address, although characters mention nearby Eastham and Wellfleet and Truro. Perhaps the author doesn't disclose a precise location because this novel is inspired by her summer cottage on Cape Cod. While Hoffman may not welcome readers dropping in on the family this summer, she extends a more alluring invitation. Geographical enigma makes the novel more potent, bidding us to remember and conjure our own mythical places.
Valerie Miner's new collection of stories, ''Abundant Light," comes out next month. She is an English professor at the University of Minnesota.