This final work by National Book Award winner (for Becoming a Man, 1992) Monette, novelist/poet/memoirist who died of AIDS in 1995, is cast in the form of a fable. Monette does well as a stylist in this farewell effort (``minimally edited for clarity and resonance''), but less well as a storyteller. A witch of changeable gender casts a spell over a forest to protect the freedom of the First Ones, those animal descendants of the forest's first settlers. The witch dies, leaving her spell intact but the responsibility for its preservation in the uncertain hands of goofy Albertus, an apprentice wizard. Just what the spell is, or how it works, isn't made clear; its main function seems to be to repel interlopers—such as hunters—and to keep the forest as it has always been. On the other hand, the larger animals still chase the smaller; the law of the wild remains intact. When the witch dies, a Great Horned Owl, sensing an opportunity, displaces Albertus and takes it upon himself to rule in the witch's place, ostensibly on behalf of the First Ones. Owl announces to his subjects that many refugees, exiles, and criminals from felled forests have entered through a tear in the forest's fabric of magic, and he calls for harsh measures. Then, midway through the fable, Owl's Orwellian tactics cast a shadow over Renarda the Fox and Lapine the Rabbit, both females, who have fallen in love and decided to live together in the same den. They are circumspect, not wishing to upset the other animals by their same-sex, different- species affair. But Owl hears of their affair and, calling down the law on them, exiles Renarda and Lapine to different parts of the forest. Enter Albertus to save the day by resurrecting the dead witch. As political fable, neatly enough spelled out but less than memorable.
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