Although it might seem an oxymoron, this original novel has well-organized stream-of-consciousness narration. Stephens (Cast a Wistful Eye, 1976) gets off to a slow start with the fact-based story of Margaret, an older Georgia woman who works in juvenile court, but as the layers of memory pile up, the weight of a lifetime begins to press down and shape the narrative. Little of the action actually takes place in 1979, the novel's present; it consists mostly of Margaret's flashbacks to other times and places. At 12 she was sent away from Jacksonville, Fla., to live with her grandparents in Waycross, Ga. She recalls her husband, who went out with her only when forced, and the early days of her marriage, when she sat with her in-laws while he joined friends to play billiards, although ""not one single game of pool had he played during their courtship. No, every night they had been together and she never heard a word about any pool."" In the early pages, Margaret occasionally drops a few too many oblique hints concerning her strange past, but eventually more is revealed. Her siblings are all retarded. The oldest, George, was the most developed: ""George seemed a little more advanced than other five-year-olds, Margaret thought -- but after all, he had a lot of experience being a person of that age."" Her father left her slovenly mother for an equally dirty and bizarre woman named Nomey -- and the two women then became best friends. Margaret's speech and thoughts are often funny, but never sacrifice the rhythm and tone of her story for a laugh, and Stephens avoids the forced quirkiness that sometimes appears to be a requirement in depicting the American South. Instead, she creates a wholly believable personality, which emerges in a naturally roundabout way. Like a delightful optical illusion: the more time you spend with it, the more you see and understand.