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The psychological intensities and explorations of Martin's novels (A Recent Martyr, 1987; Alexandra, 1979; Set in Motion, 1978) have a tendency to grow thin and fable-like in this volume of her stories. Strongest here is ""The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied,"" the bizarre yet compellingly--and believably--limned story of a woman who, after the death of her husband, believes herself inhabited by the spirit of two snakes, and who can obtain sexual gratification only when blood is drawn from her veins. Other pieces, however, exploring less and withdrawing into greater conventionalism, suffer from a proportionate lightness of character to a weightiness of allegory. ""The Cat in the Attic"" is especially artificial in this way (the parable of a vain woman incapable of loving others); ""Sea Lovers"" achieves a lyric beauty at moments as it is told from the point of view of a mermaid, but when the mermaid comes ashore, castrates a man on the beach, then is washed back to sea, the story narrows toward the point of a questionable (or obvious) message. More commonplace, ""Death Goes to a Party"" is a sluggish Hawthorne-esque tale of a masquerade party at which one of the masks (that of a seductively bare-chested man in a wolf's head) turns out to be real. An abandoned wife Frills the aggressive male dog her faithless husband left behind (""Spats""), and another woman, after a sexual humiliation, finds a cat frozen to death on her doorstep (""Freeze""), though in neither story do the women rise much above the one. dimensional, and the men they desire are meagerly conventionalized sketches. Closing the volume are two prose poems or extended Études (""The Parallel World,"" about a woman who observes closely the teeming insect life in tall grass; and ""Elegy for Dead Animals"") that are sometimes lovely but suggest work dominated by symbol more than enlivened by character. Stories, in all, that have their moments of real penetration, but that on balance seem more to strain for their substance than to grow out of it.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1987
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin