RENUKA by Stephen Alter


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Alter (Neglected Lives, Silk And Steel, The Godchild) narrates this oddly convincing novel in the voice of a middle-western American woman relegated with other wives to a hilltop community in India while their missionary husbands ""do the work of the Lord"" on the sweltering plains below. The son and grandson of American missionaries in India, Alter knows the unfamiliar contemporary milieu and limns a believable portrait of his narrator, Rachel, from inside. She is a round peg of tolerance and openness to new experience in a square hole of religious zealotry and small-mindedness. Chafing at the sugarcoated pettiness that surrounds her, she becomes close friends with Renuka, a worldly Indian poet from Calcutta who has retreated to a rented cottage in the community to recover (it is revealed toward the end) from an unhappy lesbian affair. Rachel, who is bringing up two young sons while her largely absent husband manages a missionary mental hospital, loves Renuka because she is so unlike the other women in her intelligence, warmth, and emotional risk-taking. Quirkily, each chapter begins with a recipe Rachel has solicited from the women to include in a compilation she is editing. The author's strategy seems to be to show Rachel as ordinary on the surface--living a conventional life and writing flat, serviceable prose--but something of a heroine underneath, so that her very practicality takes on a glow. There is a plodding quality to some of the book's pages that may put off readers looking for literary fireworks. But its unfamiliar setting and the way the levelheaded narrator deals with it are rewarding.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Andre Deutsch--dist. by Trafalgar Square/David & Charles