The debut in English of late-blooming novelist Beig--whose unsentimental, even at times brutal, picture of the rural Germany she grew up in confounds all our popular romantic notions of country life. Set in southern Germany, a place of suffocating piety, harsh custom, and rare compassion--a place not unlike Faulkner's South--the novel is more accurately four stories that share the same setting, the same theme, and occasionally the same characters. The stories span both world wars, but the wars are mostly incidental to the already narrow and closed lives of the main characters--all women--who never marry or live full lives: families interfere, opportunities are few, and some are themselves psychologically flawed. Babette, of the first story, sent to help her cousins on their remote mountain farm, falls in love with the mailman, but her cousins--fearful that they'll lose her help--end the relationship. Babette stays on, growing old and eccentric, enduring relatives' unkindnesses and village gossip. Meanwhile, Helene, who never really meets a man she can love (her one admirer, somewhat to her relief, is killed in the war), lives with her brother and selfish sister-in-law, where she is little more than a servant--her only pleasure is the company of one niece, and reading, first, wedding and, later, obituary notices. The women of the last two stories, Klara and Martha, are wealthier and better-educated, but Klara--unable to forget her dead mother--is frigid and self-absorbed, and Martha--fine and decent but destroyed by envious business partners--becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. There are understandably no happy endings, no epiphanies of any kind. Beig's clear and deceptively simple style of writing, if any further emphasis is needed, underlines the bleakness of her vision. It is a vision calculated to shook and instruct--and also to move. A most accomplished debut.