The 17 stories brought together here by this year's winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award are linked mainly by their unrelenting solemnity and sobriety. Not surprisingly, death inhabits much of Pritchard's imagination. Untimely death, in particular, leads to obsessive grief in ""Taking Hold of Renee,"" in which a woman on vacation in the West Indies cannot forget her young daughter, who was kidnapped and murdered two years earlier. The narrator of the utterly morose ""A Dance with Alison"" is unable to reveal to her mother the extent of her sorrow for a dead fellow camper, a slightly older girl for whom she felt great passion. Similarly, the polio-crippled son of a Navy doctor in ""Dead Finish"" recalls how his father pitted him against his only friend in a swimming race, with the result that the friend died from heart failure; and a young mother of two rocks back and forth in an ""obtund repetition of grief"" when she discovers a lump in her breast while on vacation (""With Wings Cross Water""). Two O'Connor-like stories promise comic relief, but don't deliver: in ""Companions,"" a girl made a ""misfit"" by deformity finally turns the tables on her domineering mother after the latter's stroke; another stroke victim tells the sorry tale of her spinster sister, seduced, robbed, and murdered by a crafty drifter (""A Man Around the House""). After stories about death, only stories about ghosts and spirits remain: the pious woman who indulges a ""spectral self"" in ""Disturbing No One""; the identityless woman who invokes the spirit of Sarah Bernhardt in ""Rocking on Water, Floating in Glass""; and the accidental murderer who lives with her mother's ghost in ""Photograph of Luisa."" Muted lust, spectral emanations, premature death of a loved child--all of it comes together in the title story, a historically based account of a young mother who seems to carry the spirit of a dead girl--herself given to ""fits and clairvoyances""--within her. As lushly imagistic and narratively unfocused as you'd expect, given Pritchard's ghastly and ghostly preoccupations.