Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Author . Norton $24.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-05814-7

Critically praised for her remarkable capacity to evoke time and place in her gorgeous novels (Polish concentration camps in Anya ; the Vietnam war in Buffalo Afternoon ), Schaeffer here transports the reader to medieval Japan in a haunting tale of thwarted love and unsolved mysteries. Lady Utsu, renowned both for her beauty and her cruelty, is the ward of the great Lord Norimasa. While Norimasa has been kind to Utsu, as a test of loyalty he forces her to kill her lover. When Utsu falls in love again, with Norimasa's protégé, the samurai Matsuhito, she flees the palace. Though they are unaware of the coincidence, Utsu and Matsuhito each adopt a pet fox named after the other, as surrogate for and symbol of their yearning. Their poignant reunion decades later in the snow country, mixing bliss and grief, becomes a transfiguring event. Schaeffer creates an atmosphere as delicate and precise as an etching, yet raw with violence. The story is permeated with cultural details, from palace etiquette to the customs of childbirth. It's a world of extreme gentility and utter barbarity: while the upper classes weave poetry into their formal conversations, peasants are slaughtered like animals, and victorious warlords display heads on spikes. As Utsu and Matsuhito experience passion and grief, the plaintive leitmotif is the fleeting nature of life. The plot doubles back upon itself, as Lady Utsu and Matsuhito recall earlier incidents in memory and dreams. This device adds depth, but it also slows the narrative; readers must be patient. In the end, however, the novel achieves a cumulative, transporting magic. Agent, Jean V. Naggar. 6-city author tour . (Feb.)

Forecast: This is a perfect dead-of-winter book, and should entice readers with its elegant jacket image of a demure nude. The easy comparison is Memoirs of a Geisha, but Akira Kurosawa's film The Seven Samurai (Schaeffer's original inspiration) is a better reference point.

Reviewed on: 10/20/2003
Release date: 02/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-393-32652-9
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