Ruth Frank is the youngest of three daughters belonging to a Jewish South African couple--theater people both, actors and provincial impressarios and drama-schoolmasters. Ruth's puberty and adolescence (it's the era of the Sharpville riots--when white South Africans are beginning to feel the winds of change) is the focus of Freed's especially vivid and very deft first novel. Ruth watches her eldest sister Catherine get married off to a rich dullard named Jeffrey (who'll become the family manager, a humbling experience for the artistic-souled elder Franks), the middle girl--Valerie--taken up by swaggering and bold Bernard (not above making a play for Ruth as well once she's bloomed); and she rightly feels somewhat apart, having to go it alone. She's doing well in school and having a close friendship with an Indian girl, Maya (whose father is rich enough to offer to send both Maya and Ruth away to England for college)--but mostly she's monitoring the gradual erosion of her parents' emphatic and theatrical life-style as money grows scarcer for a small-town theatre and school, as South Africa begins to fade for them as a brave, eccentric, big-fish-in-a-small-pond outpost of individuality. Freed's a good portraitist: the exiled-to-the sticks father (""We were his triumphs now, his women. The stage he'd set, the style in which we lived. There was a sense of abdication about him, as if he'd withdrawn to a high place and had taken us with him. As if we owed him something from our lives and our futures for what he'd left behind""); the mother--her constant air of living a step and more ahead of herself, foolish yet wonderful; the household's mainstay black servant Nora ("" 'What you want for that tsotsi for? Cheap Zulu-boy shoe, jump and shout like meshuganabob, while the Master he there? What you want with that Meshuganabob?'""). But it's the oblique picture of the social facts of this South African family that cuts deepest: on the ethnic sidelines themselves, they yet participate in an injustice so pervasive and deep that it's almost invisible. Freed is superb, though, at the almost. Ruth loves Nora more than she loves her mother, in a sense--yet is helpless to make life even bearable for her. That the Jews and the mercantile Indians and the servant blacks are all potentially interchangable helps not at all, a resonance throughout that's nearly subliminal. Unusually fine, mature first fiction--in motion with dilemma, comedy, and the direst implications.