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'Bodies' is a moving reflection on culture

Bodies in Motion, By Mary Anne Mohanraj, HarperCollins, 278 pp., $22.95

In the opening story of ''Bodies in Motion," a Sri Lankan couple must decide whether to permit their youngest daughter, Shanthi, to leave home and study physics at Oxford University.

Given their culture's tradition of arranged marriages, it's not a simple choice, and few things will ever be easy for the generations of Sri Lankan families whose interlocking stories form this alluring collection. Covering more than 60 years and two countries -- Ceylon, later called Sri Lanka, and America -- author Mary Anne Mohanraj has fashioned a landscape of radiant, complex characters negotiating the difficult ground between being immigrants and emigrants.

Certainly, this is familiar, well-trod ground. In one story set in 1950s Chicago, a husband tries to persuade his wife to surrender her saris for Western dress, never quite realizing ''it is only the clothing from home that makes her feel comfortable." In another set seven years later, a daughter horrifies her father when she marries a white man.

Still, there is nothing pedestrian about these stories. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Connecticut, Mohanraj knows the dreams and disappointments of her characters, and infuses their lives with emotional and sexual volatility. One of the great surprises here is this collection's daring sensuousness, though it never caves in to mere titillation.

In fact, one of the best stories, ''Oceans Bright and Wide," involves the promise of intellectual exploration. When Thani is told of his daughter's academic prowess by Sister Catherine at the child's school, he feels both a parent's reticence and pride.

''What will Shanthi's future be, if she stays here?" the nun asks Thani. ''To marry a stranger, to serve him as a wife, to have a dozen children like her mother?"

Of course, Sister Catherine, who is Irish, is right, but her statement also underlines the dodgy ethnic and racial tensions coursing through these stories. She doesn't understand their customs, and Thani doesn't want to defend them. Yet he comes to realize the cultural breach between himself and this woman he's always admired a little too much.

Such tensions will follow Shanthi to Chicago, where we catch up with her 16 years later. While these stories are linked, they do not unfold in a year-by-year chronology. It can be a little jarring -- a child in one chapter is, by the time she's mentioned again, a woman with children of her own. Then again, these stories have something like the velocity of real time, in the way that years in our own lives can seem to dash by.

It also allows Mohanraj to cover many decades. These stories begin with Thani making a decision about his daughter in the 1930s, and later we read about his granddaughter Leilani's sexual awakening in ''Pieces of the Heart" in the 1960s. Her intimate moment is juxtaposed against a childhood recollection of catching her father with another woman. That event occurs in the story ''Other Cities" and the memory, long buried, drifts back to her as she embarks on an affair with her roommate, Sue. Sexual discovery also figures prominently in ''Challah," set in Philadelphia in 1998.

''Bodies in Motion" is a graceful, nimble book. With great care and affection, Mohanraj finds both beauty and lamentations in the disquieting, but revelatory, clash between custom and assimilation, between everything that came before and all that lies ahead.

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