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Tale of a struggling family takes a supernatural turn

Behold the Many, By Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 341pp, $24

When Pinocchio was a wooden puppet, magically alive, he longed desperately to become a flesh-and-blood little boy and was willing to lose the magical in order to lose the wooden. Once he succeeded, it brought to an end the enchanting adventures invented around him, but you can see the point. He needed to grow and change.

The magic in much of literary magical realism has an equivalent stiffening effect. Encased, the characters experience limited movement or development, and after a while the veneer of miracle, however spectacular to start, grows dingy, unrenewed from within. Deus, having showily emerged ex machina, squats on it and discourages everyone inside from emerging.

Like many innovators, Gabriel Garcia Marquez , the movement's great deviser, is its exception. His grasp of his tropical world has been unfailingly tactile. Its nerves and sinews, working so differently from those of the world from which most Western writing has sprung, required that realism be magical if it was to be real. His characters may be enveloped in butterflies or set adrift in a geriatric idyll along the Magdalena River. Yet they are as grounded, acrid, and vital as Laurence Sterne's .

Like the conceits of others seemingly under Garcia Marquez's influence, Lois-Ann Yamanaka's magical devices -- ghosts instead of butterflies -- deplete her characters rather than enhance them. Her tragic, panoramic story of three sisters struggling with disease, poverty, and abuse in Hawaii in the first part of the previous century is affecting in its realistic detail until spooky melodrama overtakes it. Her writing can be stirring until rhetoric -- the verbal will to power -- inflates it.

At its start in 1909, ``Behold the Many" tells of an impoverished family of laborers on a white-owned plantation. Dai, the father, is of Portuguese extraction; Okaasan, the mother, is Japanese-American. When their three daughters are stricken with tuberculosis -- first Leah, the youngest, then Aki, then Anah , the eldest -- Dai insists on obeying the plantation requirement that they be shipped off to a charity sanitarium.

Dai is a tyrant, but for a while we may understand his harshness as a reflection of his own harsh life. Later, in the novel's swirl of story and perspective, he will show himself as monstrous. Okaasan, despised and abused by her husband and his family (ethnic resentment among Hawaii's working-class immigrants is a common Yamanaka theme), can neither bear nor resist the loss of her daughters.

Her despair is rendered with vivid passion; even more affecting is her almost casual moving-on. Yamanaka, herself a third-generation Japanese-Hawaiian, knows the stoicism of the old among her people.

At the sanitarium, run by German nuns, the successive deaths of Leah and Aki are told in lacerating fashion. Anah, tormented by the sadistic Sister Bernardine , and sheltered by Sister Mary Deborah , whose compassion rises to courageous saintliness, survives. Gradually, despite her anguish at being abandoned by her parents, who never visit -- ``I am dying here," she writes them -- she begins almost to flourish.

It is here that the ghosts of Anah's dead companions intervene. Seth, a former playmate, and Aki, fierce in life and savage in death, attack and grievously injure her. Cared for by Mary Deborah and by Ezroh, son of Rex Soares , a rich Portuguese farmer whose kindness and assistance keep the sanitarium afloat, she gradually recovers.

Anah and Ezroh will fall in love. When she is 18 and free to leave, Ezroh arrives on horseback with his father's cowboys, takes her home, and marries her. The ghost children lament and recede in the face of her happiness but curse her as they go. And they return with new energy to make her six deliveries bloody and terrible affairs rendered in unsparing detail. Two babies are born dead; Hanah, the first-born, loses an eye.

Exhausted by multiple child-bearing -- the overly loving Ezroh is destructively unable to restrain himself -- Anah falls into sporadic depressions. These turn to despair when her beloved Hanah is later seduced, abducted, and murdered. It is only then , with a ghost on her side at last, that Anah acquires a defender able to persuade her fellow spirits to make their peace.

Yamanaka's ghosts, tormented and malevolent, are written with horrifying power. Power, in fact, marks all the genres of writing -- harsh realism, expansively lyrical realism, magical realism, devotional chants, poetic chants, and streams of consciousness -- in this novel of epic social and psychological ambition. Sometimes the power draws us into its outsize effects. More often, used with more energy than discrimination, it pounds us with them.

A writer, I suppose, must be content with creating a dance -- jig, saraband, or St. Vitus -- for the reader to partner; and refrain from cutting in too often, too commandingly, and too long.

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