By Lloyd Jones
Dial, 256 pp., $20
The jacket copy claims that this novel "celebrates the . . . power of narrative to transform our lives." I am especially suspicious of this lofty claim, but I am impressed with Lloyd Jones's earnest attempt. Using "Great Expectations," by Charles Dickens, as the life-changing text, he tells the story of Matilda, a 13-year-old black girl on one of the Solomon Islands.
All but one of the whites flee the island during an armed conflict: the eccentric Mr. Watts, who remains to become the schoolteacher. He is a curiosity to the children, and not only because of his color: He is formal in manner, speech, and dress, and his teaching consists of reading "Great Expectations" out loud. Matilda and the other children immediately and enthusiastically enter into the landscape of 19th-century England and identify with Mr. Pip. When the physical book is destroyed in brutal fighting on the island, the children re-create it in fragments from their memories. And still later, the fictional hero is mistaken for an actual enemy, cleverly hidden and protected by the population, whose inability to produce him exposes them to calamity. The creation of a powerful fictional reality, its naïvely urgent re-creation, and its comic confusion with fact are all cleverly executed in a believable and often moving narrative. But Matilda's transformation from island primitive to Australian academic is satisfying where it should be inspiring.
The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
By Diane Ackerman
Norton, 288 pp., illustrated, $23.95
The zookeeper's wife is Antonina Zabinski, and her zoo is in the bombed-out city of Warsaw. Her story, resurrected by Diane Ackerman from diaries, letters, and other historical documents, begins with the destruction of her zoo in 1939.
After the Germans bombed Warsaw, leaving much of the city and its well-stocked zoo in ruins, they relocated the most valuable animals to Berlin. There, having raided the zoos and wilds of Eastern Europe, Nazi zookeepers planned to raise pure-bred, racially unmixed animals. Antonina; her husband, Jan; and their young son, Rys, remained at the ruined zoo with the few small surviving animals.
Throughout the war, while the zoo was reconceived as a pig farm, briefly as garden plots, and finally as a fox fur farm, the Zabinskis stayed on. Using the grounds, buildings, and cages as a way station and permanent hiding place for Jews, the Zabinskis helped more than 300 people survive or escape the war. Ackerman, relying on Antonina's diary, tells her domestic stories of terror and triumph. The less Antonina knew of Jan's more active efforts the better, and thus his adventures are missing. Her own stories, told chronologically and without shaping or hindsight, have less impact than they should. Ackerman is obviously admiring of her subject and cautious about revising her impressions or questioning her motives and conclusions. But a little fictional reworking would have been helpful. In the most disturbing incident of the history, Antonina allows her young son to be led off to certain slaughter without a sign or word of objection. When his murder turns out to be a cruel joke, she tries to analyze the would-be killers' sadistic motives, but she never analyzes her own behavior. And Ackerman backs away from doing for Antonina what she wouldn't do for herself.
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Random House, 207 pp., $22.95
The first five stories in this collection - "Learning to Drive," "Webstalker," "In the Study Group," "Sisterhood," and "After the Men Are Dead" - directly or indirectly refer to Katha Pollitt's long-delayed recognition that her boyfriend was a liar and a cheat. They are fueled by rage at the selfishness of men and by mockery at the foolishness of women, especially herself. They are painfully hilarious to read. Pollitt's tone of incredulous fury is pitch perfect. "Still, it astonished me that she'd believed that business about my permitting his philandering. The only people who seem to know such women firsthand are the men who are cheating on them. You never hear a woman say, 'Whatever George wants is fine with me - I just want him to be happy!' No woman has ever passed on to another the riveting news that Miriam understands that Joe needs variety. It is only men who seem to possess this bit of intimate knowledge, which apparently is so instantly credible, so obviously true, that no one ever asks the woman herself about it."
The later stories never approach the manic energy of the first five, although the affectionate story about Pollitt's failed Communist father, "Good-bye, Lenin," is lovely. She is insightful about the contradictions of motherhood in general, and the compromises (discovered from FBI files) made by her own mother in particular.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.