An ambitious debut novel from young Johannesburg writer Behr revisits 1970s South Africahere, to tell of a family that conveniently embodied many of that country's familiar pathologies and distortions. While not exactly a morality tale, the story that ten-year-old Marnus Erasmus tells is nonetheless shaped and determined by the phrase ``the smell of apples''apples that are sweet until they rot and stink. This handy metaphor for the society Behr describes is carefully worked out in the narrative that young Marnus relates, alternating with brief dispatches from the 1988 Angolan front, where the now-adult Marnus is reluctantly fighting. As he recalls what was in many ways a typical summer, he innocently reveals all the bigotry and hypocrisy that he learns at school, at church, and to some degree at home. Marnus's father, a South African general contemptuous of blacks, talks sententiously of defending the country ``whatever the cost''; his mother, a former opera singer, reflects a relatively more humane if paternalist attitude, as does his older sister, Ilse, whose visit to Holland has made her critical of the status quo. Marnus describes a seemingly happy family living in idyllic circumstances, even though this sweet life, like the country itself, is rotting at the core. When Marnus accidentally learns that his mother is having an affair and then witnesses his father sexually molesting Marnus's best friend, Frikkie, the sweet smell of apples is gone forever. ``In life,'' the older and now fatally wounded Marnus observes, ``there is no escape from history.'' An acute, if sometimes schematic, rendering of a time, a place, a family, and a terrible obsession with race and identity that came close to destroying the beloved country and all its peoples.