cover image BRAZIL RED


Jean-Christophe Rufin, , trans. from the French by Willard Wood. . Norton, $24.95 (429pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05207-7

A page-turner that won the Prix Goncourt in 2001, Rufin's third offering (after The Abyssinian and The Siege of Isfahan ) fits neatly into the romance novel mold of beautiful maidens, brave knights and dastardly villains. The story centers on the plight of two 16th-century French orphans, Just and Colombe, who are tricked into joining a colonial expedition to subjugate Brazil. The enterprise is commanded by Chevalier Durand de Villegagnon, a colonist whose actual memoirs provided Rufin with some of the details that inspired this novel. Once across the ocean, Villegagnon prematurely dubs Brazil the "New France" and sets about combating his enemies: the hot Brazilian sun, the native residents and the Portuguese, who claimed sole right to Brazil long before. Years roll by and as the action proceeds, a question hovers portentously over the book: will the orphans grow up to be cruel colonialists or secular humanists who appreciate the Indians' wisdom? Rufin provides plenty of rousing action, yet somehow, despite the author's historical research, the book never rises far above melodrama. This is partly due to tired word choice and to the playlike structure of scenes that end with a conveniently chiming clock or thunder in the distance. Mostly, however, it is the natural consequence of the novel's overly neat divide between good and evil. Agent, Lucinda Karter. (Aug.)