A notable US debut from French writer Saumont: stories that record, without apparent emotion, the searing desolation of ordinary lives. In prose that echoes the terseness of a Samuel Beckett, Saumont tells of characters aware that their already difficult lives are unlikely to improve--``of unhappiness which happens without warning. For no reason.'' This stoical recognition gives them a harrowing intensity as they struggle to endure in an equally bleak landscape. A professional photographer in Vichy France realizes that the pictures he's taken of a class of schoolchildren, which includes a Jewish boy, and of the assassination of a German officer could lead inadvertently to the children's deaths in reprisal (``The Spelling Test''); a young boy who thinks he's a truck is successfully treated when his brother, who'd taken care of him, is killed in an accident, only to revert to his old behavior when his brother's girlfriend tries to seduce him (``I'm No Truck''); and a woman whose unemployed husband is away looking for work has an intense sexual encounter with a stranger (``Rainy April, Late Afternoon''). Other standouts include ``Maurice: His True Story,'' in which a young woman tells the story of her husband, who, haunted by a fear of his family's criminal tendencies, lectures their small son obsessively on the need ``to be honest''; ``The Altarpiece,'' in which a bitter young wife tells how a woman she befriended--an art historian--became responsible for the breakup of her marriage; and ``Try to Remember,'' in which a boy, saved from drowning, must cope with his grief-stricken, depressed mother, who accuses him of deliberately drowning his baby brother in the same incident. Little light and less joy, but the grim reality is handled with remarkable sympathy and craft. An impressive accomplishment.