cover image Shape Shifter

Shape Shifter

Pauline Melville. Pantheon Books, $19 (164pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40438-5

In this startling debut collection, which won England's prestigious Guardian Prize, hard-luck Londoners and Caribs find themselves and their environs in a state of metamorphosis. In ``The Conversion of Millicent Vernon,'' a West Indian teenager abandons Christianity after an per web obeah man recommends tree worship to save her rotting teeth; the protagonist of ``The Truth Is in the Clothes'' discovers that the back wall of her London flat opens up on her native Jamaica; ``The Girl with the Celestial Limb'' concerns a shop girl whose leg turns into a black hole that threatens to swallow her. The prominence of the supernatural notwithstanding, these 12 stories are firmly rooted in reality. From an incarcerated Jamaican mother's dulled anguish to a poor woman's desperate efforts to befriend a doctor's wife, Melville depicts people marginalized by the color of their skin or by the emptiness of their pocketbooks in a way that transcends whimsy. The pained social consciousness behind these stories is leavened by a sharp wit, as in ``Tuxedo,'' a tale about a would-be safecracker who talks to his maker ``Jamaica-style'' because ``it makes God feel more like one of the boys.'' Shaman-like, Melville transforms the mundane yet never loses sight of social inequities or of the pleasures of laughter. (Sept.)