Brown's second novel returns to the hothouse milieu of his first (Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994): a New Orleans full of familial tragedy and racial strife. And like the first, this somber tale rests on a burdensome secret, except that here things seem even more manufactured and implausible. In a voice that shifts from first to third person, Shelton Gerard Lafleur, an accomplished folk artist in his 70s, tells the oddly redemptive story of his life, one marked by a crippling fall from a tree at age eight. Before then, Shelton understood his mother to be the sweet, sickly white woman who spent most of her days in bed. What we come to learn is that the young black boy was purchased by a wealthy white man, Edward Soniat, to keep his dying daughter company. When Shelton falls from the tree, he's spirited to an orphanage, while the woman he believes to be his mother is told he's dead. Taking a vow of silence in the Depression-era institution, Shelton endures the abuse of the other boys, secure in his belief that he'll one day be returned to his family. But Miss Genevieve, the Soniats' nursemaid, has other plans. At 13, Shelton finds a patron of sorts in Minou Parrian, Miss Genevieve's son-in-law, a painter who pretends to be blind while sketching tourists in the French Quarter. Minou teaches Shelton his craft, both the art of drawing and the trickery of exploiting handicaps. The hyped-up drama of the novel comes from a sudden reversal, when Minou and Shelton change their roles as protector and protected. While Shelton finds strength and forgiveness with the revelation of his true parentage, Minou sets off on a mission of murderous revenge. The self-conscious play of imagery (light/dark, blindness/sight) is just one obvious aspect of Brown's overwrought and formulaic prose; his relentless sense of woe and despair is another. Retro southern fiction: Faulkner by way of the creative writing department.