Short takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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By Jane Gardam
Europa, 224 pp., paperback, $15

First published some 30 years ago, “God on the Rocks’’ has been reissued as a sort of terminus a quo for the astringent, immaculately detailed storytelling of Jane Gardam (“Old Filth,’’ “The Man in the Wooden Hat’’), a national treasure in Britain who is only late in her career gaining a following in this country.

The novel opens on a summer day in the 1930s in a seaside town in northern England. Eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, an alarmingly wise child whose nose has been put out of joint by the arrival of a baby brother, is temporarily pacified by the promise of an excursion with Lydia, the family’s new maid. A bold and blowsy young woman, Lydia proves to be a shock to the Marshes’ system, especially to Margaret’s father, a stern and, as it turns out, utterly hypocritical Christian fundamentalist. The ripples radiating from that shock carry us backward to Margaret’s mother’s youth, to a path not taken and now bitterly regretted, and forward to unforeseen, accidental, but somehow perfectly inevitable developments and complications.

Gardam orchestrates the subtle evolution of character and plot with Olympian omniscience and wry humor.

By Leslie Marmon Silko
Viking, 336 pp., $25.95

When Leslie Marmon Silko was growing up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, she was taught by the outside world that her identity was shameful, that her language and culture had to be rejected, forgotten, if she was to get ahead in life.

With the publication of her best-selling novel “Ceremony’’ in 1978, Silko defiantly reclaimed that identity. She returned to the Southwest, where she still walks the landscape she reveres and loves, picking up bits of turquoise emerging from an underground rock ledge, a metaphor for the work of unearthing a buried heritage that she performs in this memoir.

Of mixed Native American, Mexican, and European bloodlines, Silko relates stories about her parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors, not letting respect and affection censor episodes of violence, alcoholism, and cruelty. She speaks of her early years and writes at length about the animals — the dogs and birds and horses, the lizards and especially the snakes — she perceives as her extended family. She depicts with vibrant colors (and a certain New Age narcissism) a world exotic to us, familiar to her, placing herself at its center while restoring it to its place at the center of her being.

By Xu Xi
Haven Books, 288 pp., paperback, $15

Hong Kong-based investment banker Gail Szeto is one of the financial stratosphere’s high fliers, a workaholic constantly jetting off to New York or Singapore on a moment’s notice in pursuit of the latest blockbuster deal. Her guarded personality conceals a disreputable secret she allows few others to know: She is the illegitimate daughter of a Hong Kong dance hall girl and an American playboy who was only passing through.

A concatenation of melodramatic events leaves Gail in short order without her marriage, her child, her scandalous mother, and with an unexpected inheritance that frees her to do whatever she pleases. As new men enter her life and new professional opportunities are dangled before her, she must summon the emotional energy to answer the obvious question: Who is she and what does she want from this brave new world of East-West wheeling and dealing she seems so well equipped to conquer?

The novel portrays more or less convincingly a stressed-out, incestuously networked, cosmopolitan corporate culture. The characters, however, are empty shells and the narrative a jumble of pieces in search of a puzzle.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at