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Ali Smith. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100350-1

A former academic flees the protection of her parents' upper-middle-class English home after a nervous breakdown deprives her of the power to read in this quiet, accomplished first novel from Scottish writer Smith (Free Love). The first section, alternately narrated by Amy Shone and her precocious seven-year-old daughter, Kate, contains sharp-eyed observations of the unconventional relationship of mother and daughter, who live as itinerants in a caravan park in Scotland. Amy doesn't know who Kate's father was, and, in her volatile mental state, is tempted to abandon her daughter on more than one occasion. But maternal love keeps her more or less stable. It is on Kate's behalf that she ultimately returns to her parents' house after an eight-year absence, where she borrows enough money to go to Pompeii. There, the area's historical resonance affects Amy in unforeseen ways. In the less successful second section, a young movie actress named Ash (short for Aisling McCarthy) reminisces about her relationship with the cold, brilliant Amy when they were both schoolgirls; her crush became a nearly overwhelming obsession when she followed Amy to university. After continual rebuffs, Ash commits arson in an effort to win Amy's attention--burning her books and implicitly destroying her academic career with the gesture. Smith's writing, at its strongest, is unhurried, perceptive, tender and graceful. This is a skillful portrayal of three unusual women who bring to their lives more questions than answers. (Aug.)