Second-novelist D'Aguiar, winner of the Whitbread and David Higham awards for The Longest Memory (1995), here offers a poetic and often moving tale of a broken-up Caribbean family. A colony, then independent, then ``a socialist republic,'' the nation here has no name, though the village where the book's people live has part of one: ``Ariel, Cooperative Republic village number---.'' Poor, rundown, politically corrupt (the President, with his Laurel and Hardy aides, carries a broadcasting device in one of his teeth, put there by the island's single dentist, who works for the ``opposition''), the nation may have no future, but the people of Ariel have stamina, wit, courage, imagination--and profound feelings. The family portrayed by D'Aguiar includes a father who has run off for good; his wife, gone to England with three of her five little sons to ``work'' for the President's upcoming election (by rigging voter-registration lists--for which, in the end, she'll get worse than no thanks); and, back home, her two remaining sons, Red Head and Bash Man Goady, along with the grandparents whose children are more than aunts and uncles but just like extra siblings. So it's especially terrifying for all when Beanstalk accidentally hits Red Head with the back-swing of an ax and brings him near death--though it's just the beginning, for the reader, of many fine tellings--about how uncle Wheel fares in the National Cycle Championships, how an unexpected alligator-wrestle turns out, what will happen in the upcoming election, whether Red Head will win the National Draughts Championships--and whether the brothers in London will ever rejoin the brothers back home. In the imaginary letters that close the book and tear at the heart, one, writing from ``this ever-present past,'' says that ``I miss them because I perished missing them,'' and that ``That's because nothing is anything here.'' Life, laughter, and sorrow woven into a thing of beauty by a genuinely gifted writer.