cover image Hell


Kathryn Davis. Ecco Press, $22 (179pp) ISBN 978-0-88001-560-8

""Something has been, is, and always will be wrong in this house, though at first glance you'd never guess."" Stories of several cluttered houses converge in this dense, sensuous novel from Kafka Prize winner Davis (Labrador; The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf). Spliced into the story of a Philadelphia house struck by Hurricane Hazel in the mid-1950s (as told by the bookish adolescent girl who grew up there) are a handful of the semi-historical fantasies dear to Davis. They concern Edwina Moss, the 19th-century ""renowned expert on household management,"" and Antonin Careme, Napoleon's chef. Davis holds the book together by juxtaposition rather than by more conventional narrative glue. Careme's obsession with smoothness and whiteness (culminating in the perfection of the desert blancmange, about which Edwina Moss writes an entire book) contrasts strongly, for instance, with the moldy disintegration of the Philadelphia house. Readers looking for more accessible connections between subplots will be disappointed. Just when the novel offers a hint of traditional narrative (in the form of a mystery surrounding the death of the narrator's childhood friend), the story dissolves into hallucinatory riffs involving tertiary characters. Throughout, Davis seems gleefully determined to frustrate the reader with her virtuosic, run-on sentences. The result is as satiating, not to say exhausting, as one of Careme's most extravagant creations. (Feb.)