Breath and Shadows

Ella Leffland, Author William Morrow & Company $24 (320p) ISBN 978-0-688-14271-1
The breadth and seriousness of Leffland's imagination has been evident in her four previous novels (most recently, The Knight, Death and the Devil), none of which resembles the other, and each of which combines formidable narrative gifts with a fidelity to background and to human nature. Here, the fragile beacon of moral integrity defies an enigmatic hereditary gloom and illuminates a richly imagined story of three generations of a Danish family over two centuries. Thorkild, born a dwarf and now a widowed financial adviser living in early 19th century Copenhagen, has been tormented by shame over his handicap all his life. When his beloved son and only child is killed in the battle of Leipzig, he gradually grows unhinged with grief, and his sister commits him to a mental institution. This tragic legacy becomes an unhealthy fixation for Thorkild's granddaughter, Grethe Rosted, the novel's second character, a happily married mother of two residing on the Northern Danish coast in the 1880s. Despite her pleasant life as a member of the liberal bourgeois circles then revolutionizing Scandinavian culture, Grethe slowly goes mad and devastates her family in one terrible, irreversible act. Paula, a middle-aged American woman living in present-day Switzerland, is the novel's third character and the granddaughter that Grethe never knew. She has fled a staid existence as the wife of a Swiss attorney to sculpt in a remote village in the Jura mountains, where she ponders the same painful questions that, unknown to her, anguished her ancestors: ""It was as if God, if one believed in God, had forgotten to finish His task when He created human beings, had left out some essential, some terribly needed ingredient."" Though the plot's complex genealogy is at times hard to follow, and the callousness and cruelty of some of the characters sometimes contrasts too neatly with the gentleness of those they harm, the theme resonates powerfully nonetheless. Leffland's graceful, poetic prose and her ability to create indelibly vivid settings (from a small hut in the Jura mountains to the bustle of 18th-century Copenhagen) is dazzling. Her intelligent, unsentimental assessment of the harshness that coexists with the beauty of life is beautifully conveyed through this clan's family inheritance of passion and disenchantment. Agent: Lois Wallace. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/29/1999
Release date: 04/01/1999
Genre: Fiction
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