The 1994 Nobelist's most recent novel (after Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1995) is a tense meditation on the life of a stricken woman whose sufferings and subsequent transformation linger hauntingly in the memory of the narrator entrusted with her story. That narrator is recognizably Kenzaburo Oe, a famous novelist whose loving and despairing relationship with his mentally retarded son has repeatedly found its way into his books. She is Marie Kuraki, a divorced university teacher whose academic specialty is Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor's own burdened life and complicated religious faith assume new meaning for Marie when a series of catastrophic misfortunes overtake her. The double suicide of her crippled younger son and his brain-damaged older brother, the death of her ex-husband (just as they were planning to reconcile), and Marie's own battle with breast cancer propel her into a close, if argumentative, relationship with the narrator and his family (begun when they both participate in a hunger strike to honor the memory of the Hiroshima dead and protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons). Marie later involves herself with a (somewhat pretentious) theater troupe, and then a zealous commune that removes to America (her affair with a self-styled religious leader nicknamed ``Uncle Sam'' is a bit too nakedly symbolic), and spends her final days in the Mexican countryside, where she is adored as an incarnation of stoicism. Oe's narrator broods compulsively over the enigma of Marie Kuraki's faith (or lack of it), finding parallels for her fate in literary texts (by Balzac, Dante, Yeats, and Dostoevsky, among others). Her enigmatic forbearance evokes for him the great Russian novelist's beleaguered women characters. Though discursiveness dissipates the story's narrative unity, its impassioned intensity keeps you riveted to the page. Not a fully achieved work of fiction, but, still, an impressively dramatic specimen of the contemporary didactic novel, a genre that Oe has elevated by impressing upon it so powerfully his own personal history and sensibility.