DOWN THERE BY THE TRAIN

Kate Sterns, Author . Crown/Shaye Areheart $23 (272p) ISBN 978-0-609-61015-2

Sterns's second novel (after 1992's Thinking about Magritte ) is the fictional equivalent of a beautiful layered dessert—a trifle, say: its narrative studded with word play, soaked in allusions, slathered with medical arcana. Some Canadian reviewers ate it up, but this fairy tale may be a bit rich for the American palate. Take the hero's name: Levon Hawke. Not only is it "novel" spelled backwards, it's also a homophone for the Levin in Anna Karenina , which Levon's beloved little sister, Alice (as in Wonderland) was reading at the time of her tragic death. The plot also involves two star-crossed lovers, a cooking contest called Babbitt's Feast, the power of baker's yeast not only to leaven dough but, perhaps, to raise the dead and the interplay (lexical and spiritual) between good and God. For all the verbal games, Sterns tells a real story here: Levon, out on parole and in need of a job, finds himself in a strange town, working at a strange bakery and coming to grips with his grief over the loss of Alice, who is childhood personified. Meanwhile, Obdulia Limb, whom Levon inadvertently saves from poisoning herself and eventually grows to love, must move beyond mourning for her mother, Hereword, who committed suicide. Against a gothic island landscape somewhere in Canada, the haunted Levon and the morbid herbalist Obdulia work out their redemption through a delicious pulp romance. The ogres, internal and external, are defeated in the name of love, and the story comes full circle, thanks to a nice cup of tea and Obdulia's redemptive decision to "be mother." (Jan. 6)

Reviewed on: 11/17/2003
Release date: 12/01/2003
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