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A one-trick novel-like gig about a girl who becomes a woman in a world populated with “corpses”: people who don’t feel much, see much, or know as much as she does.

The conceit here—that small-minded, ignorant people who live less by mind and heart than by rote are as good as dead—retains the slim premise of the short story that engendered it, and, though the girl here, Oz, is raised by corpses, taught by corpses, befriended by corpses, and becomes a teacher with corpses—the actual narrative fleshes out a rather bland life. As the tale opens, Oz holds in her hand a “brand-spanking-new” copy of a book retrieved from the empty coffin of Mr. Stark, once her neighbor and lifelong mentor. The corpse is missing; in its place is the book she wrote years ago. Oz theorizes that Stark is asking her to revise an earlier version of her reflections on corpses and life, and so she settles into the task with laborious glee. As a girl, Oz survived the early deaths of her parents, her mother’s in childbirth. After Oz attempts to enlist Mr. Stark as a member of her fundamentalist Christian church, she is taken with and effectively raised by him, an actual living person, whose intellectual and spiritual curiosity excites her mind and imagination. She follows these instincts into college, where she majors in philosophy and dates a variety of weakly drawn men (her prime companions have been animals, usually dogs, whose names and personalities Dunbar lovingly catalogues). Throughout, Oz will casually drop inapt philosophical asides: life’s basic assumptions are known as “Quinean core beliefs.” Quinean or no, such a term—and others like it—is out of place in so light and wayward a stray of a story. The digging goes on at the graveside of Mr. Stark, Oz continues her life story, and the reader can’t help but consider the premise provocative—what, after all, are the distinguishing features of the truly “alive”?—but it’s an exploration decidedly inert.

A rote, sophomoric second effort from Dunbar (Margaret Cape, 1997).

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-15-101015-3
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2004