Winner of two best first-novel awards in England, Crace's book is more a collection of stories with shared locale and theme. That locale and theme, on the other hand, are extraordinary: a seventh continent of the earth we do not know about--and yet do: for it is the primal stage of underdevelopment, of fantastic poverty and exploitation and political cruelty. In ""Talking Skull,"" a young semi-sophisticate is tied beyond appeal to the ancestral husbandry of hermaphrodite cattle; in ""The Prospect from Silver Hill,"" a mining agent's world is everted through loneliness; in what's maybe the best story of all--""The World With One Eye Shut""--a political prisoner finds a future of endless confinement, not for anything he's done especially but because his simpleton sister had an overbearing crush on one of the guards. In Crace's fables, things don't quite dovetail; since the prose is for the most part measured and vivid, the effect is often one of surreal displacement, an out-of-time distillation, free of cause and effect, of how societies get ruined and never rebuilt. Saying that this is a novel, though, seems stretching the case; the episodic nature of the book is a little too self-enchanted, and some of the stories (""In Heat"") aren't much better than good-grade sci-fi. But as a stylist alone, Crace deserves attention.