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by Glenda Adams

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-571-19897-X
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Stories within stories, like a set of Russian nesting dolls, this latest from Australian writer Adams (Longleg, 1992, etc.) is striking work—both lyrical and enigmatic, with the grander components of a fairy tale forming the contours of its frame. Thirteen-year-old Clemenza is dying. Her unnamed illness threatens the sweet existence she shares with her mother Abel, yet the two persevere, vacationing in Vermont and enjoying their cabin's lakeside pleasures. On a dramatically stormy night, a mysterious woman, who looks like Abel's twin, explodes into the cabin in search of a missing manuscript she believes to be in the house. Though the woman leaves empty-handed, Abel later finds the missing pages hidden at the bottom of some recently purchased used books. Clemenza, hungry for an unattainable future, asks her mother for stories of life and love, making the discovery of the manuscript all the more captivating—since it's the diary of a 16- year-old Sydney suburbanite, circa 1956. The discovery is a double delight for Abel, because she too is Australian, and the pages were written in the year of her birth. They offer the simple, idyllic memories she craves, so different from her own dour childhood. And Cornelia Benn's chronicle is in fact a lovely account of innocence and experience, of Australia in the '50s, of dances and first jalopies and declarations of everlasting love. Inserted into Cornelia's diary is the mystery-adventure she's writing. One narrative moves seamlessly into the next, foreshadowing the events of Abel's life until Abel and Clemenza's own unhappy story is finally told, including the tragic event ten years prior that drove them to escape to America. Coincidences and look-alikes are deftly manipulated here by Adams, making the novel playfully Shakespearean in its climactic revelations of true identities and linking elements. Adams captures the right tone for each narrative, creating a haunting and compelling work. A distinctive and likable novel.