Desai--established in Britain but a newcomer here--is an arresting narrator, blending the lightly evocative with the uncompromisingly tough, but she's not quite gifted enough to draw full-sized feeling from a brief novel that is really two overlapping short stories. To the barren Himalayan village of Kasauli has come widowed matriarch Nanda Kaul, determined to put her whirlpool family life behind her, to avoid involvements, to shirk responsibility ""like a great, heavy, difficult book that she had read through and was not required to read again."" But--enter great-grandchild Raka, whose mother has gone back to the sanitarium, whose grandmother is otherwise engaged; Nanda Kaul must welcome the child to her sanctuary of isolation. Prepared to keep the uninvited guest at a distance with icy effort, Nanda is stunned to meet her match at aloofness--Raka, preferring solitary rovings to maternal attentions, ""was the finished, perfected model of what Nanda Kaul was a brave, flawed experiment."" A third character (and a second story) attaches herself to this engaging rencontre with the arrival of impoverished, overeducated Ila Das, Nanda's hideous school chum, a sort of grotesque, Indian Blanche DuBois who comes to babble at teatime and is raped and murdered on her pathetic way home. And a final coup de theatre--""Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire""--cannot quite give what has gone before a dramatic shape or emotional focus. But Desai's portraits of the ancient women--utter opposites--are psychologically convincing (Raka's point of view is too middle-aged even for a wise child), and the dusty, hilly terrain is made visible and feel-able without undue descriptive effort. This may be a novel to stray over rather than hold on to, but this is a talent to watch.