Playwright Berc debuts in fiction with a bleak fairy tale of female loss of innocence, this set on the American frontier. Emmanuel and his bride Cora follow dream images that lead them to a site smack in the allegorical center of the American wilderness, where they build and furnish a grand hotel. Then Emmanuel disappears, leaving his wife with their 15-year-old twin daughters, Miranda and Rose. Miranda is a ghostly beauty who, at night in her attic bedroom, paints in a dream state, creating hallucinatory images of the willow-tree-dripping-babies ilk. Instead of paints, she uses her vomit and other bodily excretions, creating unearthly colors and reproducing the textures of the flowers and snakes she eats. When a handsome painter visits the hotel, he falls for Miranda and induces her to contribute to his giant panorama of the uncharted continent. Ultimately, though, the painter leaves, stealing Miranda's paintings and leaving her bereft. Meanwhile, unattractive Rose, ignored by her family, hangs out with Trappera scruffy man renting a cabin on the hotel premises who's teaching Rose taxidermy and at the same time raping her. She merely endures his increasingly brutal assaults, hoping to glean his secrets for preserving animals, since she believes his chemical machinations give the creatures she pities eternal life. These two sisters do represent potent types: Rose, the abuse victim, buries her own pain in a fervent delusion of helping the helpless; Miranda, the fragile artist, mutilates her body to protect her soul. But there's no real narrative thread behind Berc's parade of torments: Yes, mother Cora is slowly dismembering the hotel, but there's so little sense of family to begin with that this unsubtle symbolic degeneration hardly registers. The bedtime-story cadences and portentous mythic trappings are strained and distracting, numbing the impact of this first novel's genuinely disturbing subjects.
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