Reading a Rubens novel (Mate in Three, Our Father, Sat on Edge--all 1987) requires an iron-nerved distance. Her cool tales about acrid domestic relations and solitary masturbatory griefs, rages, and obsessions, touched as they are with a bizarre comic irony, cut deep. Here, a London psychiatrist, cold as an arctic bean, germinates an evil seed. Dr. Alistair Crown's wife, Virginia, has just given birth to their first child, named ``Doris'' by an angry Virginia from a card she found in the flowers Alistair brought her--flowers purloined from a cemetery. Alistair is cheap as well as rotten. Doris is born with Down's syndrome, and Alistair will never look at the child's face. But he will touch her body (after covering her face) with what he considers one version of parental love, and then, obsessed, he will draw doodles of an imagined Doris face. Inevitably, Alistair and Virginia separate, and he continues to see patients. (Rubens wickedly skewers the workday of a bored psychiatrist). Into Alistair's office one day comes ``Esau,'' a huge man covered with hair like an animal. Rejected by his father, Esau strips before medical men to reverse his father's withering verdict, and Esau becomes Alistair's gentle friend (platonic). Esau's tragic end preludes another erasure of innocence when little five-year-old Doris is kidnapped. The anguish of temporarily reunited parents and grandparents as hours and days tick by has acid calms and tempests of unrelieved nightmare. The close is predictable, but such is Rubens's skill that the reader must plunge along to the end of a very direful road indeed. A teeth-grinding, chilling tale of human nastiness--in guises that are both horrible and most commonplace.