Cot death, they called it, when two-month-old Beth Warren died, but in this bleak, near-brilliant first novel, it soon...

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COLD IN EARTH

Cot death, they called it, when two-month-old Beth Warren died, but in this bleak, near-brilliant first novel, it soon becomes appallingly clear that they called it wrong. Near brilliant. Two-thirds brilliant. Most of it unfolds through journals--three separate ones--kept for differing reasons by embattled members of the Warren family. At the outset, we meet Zo' Warren, ""the British Oprah,"" a major TV celebrity who enjoys the role and all the pleasant bits and pieces that go with it. What she's never enjoyed at all is being a mother. And then, unexpectedly, when she's 46, baby Beth arrives, triggering a maternal response she would have sworn she was incapable of. Not that Zo' isn't fond of her other children--Paul, 14, and Andrew, 11. It's just that Michael, her husband, a natural nurturer, is so much better at seeing to them. Beth changes everything, though, most especially changes Zo': brightens her, opens her, then shatters her by dying. Through diary entries, we follow Zo''s painful descent into virtual madness. The work here is meticulous: bleakness embraced and transmuted into drama by a writer at the top of her craft. When Michael continues the story, there's no falling off in quality. He suffers. We empathize. Through him we learn that what had seemed accidental, was in fact an outrageous crime. But who committed it? That turns out to be the story's pitfall, since, as Michael acknowledges, ""There is rather a shortage of suspects."" In the last third of the story, the who and why are revealed. It's a process that seems overlong, simply because the who doesn't come as news and the why strains credulity. Still, on balance, a remarkably well-done first effort.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 1998

ISBN: 0312292341

Page Count: 256

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1998