Early in Martin's mesmerizing and moving new novel, Ellen Clayton, one of the three women whose lives are chronicled here, reads a magazine article titled, ``The Great Divorce.'' Its subject is ``the breakup between the human species and the rest of nature,'' and this is Martin's theme here too. Ellen, a vet at the New Orleans zoo, is pessimistic about the balance between humanity and nature. ``Zoos operated as arks, holding animals for the future, but it was a future that would never come.'' In this story it is not only wild animals that are doomed. So is Ellen's marriage to Paul, a habitual philanderer in search of emotional ``liberty,'' who finally leaves her for a younger woman; so is Camille, a young keeper of the cats at the zoo who feels she has no place in society and no chance for happiness; and so is a heroine we meet in flashback, Elizabeth Boyer Schlaeger, called ``the catwoman,'' who in 1846 was hanged for murdering her tyrannical husband. Martin interweaves these stories with virtuosic dexterity, making an implicit comparison between a lithe black leopard at the zoo and a similar creature into which Elizabeth claimed she was transformed, meanwhile effectively underscoring the tension between an idealized notion of benign nature and the reality of red tooth and claw. Her assured portraits of people and zoo inmates counterpoint the need for freedom, ``the spirit of rage against imprisonment,'' that drives all species. In a neatly calibrated narrative, she juxtaposes mundane domestic scenes with those of high gothic horror: the murder victim, his throat slashed, lying in carmine gore while his demented wife, her mouth and hands smeared with his blood, serenely plays the piano he had locked away from her. In Mary Reilly and her other novels, Martin revealed herself as a highly imaginative raconteur who can invest even the most bizarre situation with psychological validity. Here she reveals profound truths about human nature while telling a powerful story of primitive emotions. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/1994 Release date: 02/01/1994 Genre: Fiction
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