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familiar territory with this new collection . Set in Sri Lanka and the Far East, the poems are ornamented (at times too ostentatiously) with parasols and palanquins, monsoons and dagobas. Figurative language supplements the exotic effect, presenting the reader with roots "like fingers of a blind monk." So, too, does the abundance of sensory details. When Ondaatje describes "the mid-rib of a coconut palm" or "the brush of sandalwood along the collarbone," he displays a natural strength his admirers will recognize. Several of the poems though, particularly the four longer ones, rely too heavily on these "safari" details. The resulting stylish glitter fails to hide their lack of form. Reading these poems, while by no means unpleasant, is not exactly engaging either. Ondaatje succeeds most in certain isolated moments and intriguing anecdotes. "A man washing a trumpet/at a roadside tap" creates a sense of place more powerfully than any number of passages reminiscent of armchair travel. The middle sequence, "The Nine Sentiments ," based on Sanskrit and Tamil love poetry, is ambitious in its bridging of ancient and modem lyrical modes, but nevertheless there is a curious coldness to it. The same is true of "Last Ink," the concluding piece and closest thing to a title poem. The memorable poems are paradoxically those that attempt the least. "The Medieval Coast" chisels out village life on a coastUne as skillfully as the stone-cutters it features chisel stone. The six lines of "The First Rule of Sinhalese Architecture" form a parable like jewel of a poem, and "Flight" possesses the solid, seamless assurance of a memorable Imagist work: "In the half-dark cabin of Air Lanka Flight 5/the seventy-year-old lady next to me begins to comb/her long white hair, then braids it in the faint light." (BF) The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson Overlook Press, 1999, 278 pp., $24.95 The precocious child alone in a world of indifferent, cruel or absent adults is a convention of literature: Cinderella, Alice, Pip and Maurice Sendak's Max come to mind. In Thomas Penman we have a new child for the pantheon, the cruelty ofwhose upbringing rivals Cinderella's, whose company is as odd as Alice's and whose mischievous nature gives Max a run for his money. It's 1959, and Thomas Penman is a lonely, asthmatic fourteen-year-old living a Gothic nightmare on the English coast. His parents' decaying Victorian house reeks of boiling meat and shelters an assortment of cruel adults and incontinent dogs. (Thomas is rather incontinent himself, so the dogs' messes are blamed on the boy.) Thomas' only friend in the house is his grandfather, Walter, who lost the top of his skull during the First World War and passes the days augmenting his vast collection ofVictorian pornography . Thomas, in turn, spends much of his free time plotting how to break into Grandfather's collection. In trying to unlock those secrets, Thomas stumbles onto less titillating and more tragic secrets about himself , his strange family and how they got that way. As Walter tells Thomas The Missouri Review · 195 when he catches the boy trying to jimmy a pom vault, "When you're out hunting secrets, Tom, make sure you're after d\e right one." Superficially, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is pretty standard fare—sensitive boy with indifferent parents and excessive libido comes of age. But Bruce Robinson's prose crackles with filthy energy, and we recognize ourselves in the hopelessly muddled Thomas and our families in Robinson's deft descriptions of dysfunction like this one of Thomas' house at Christmas: "full of relatives and poison, undercurrents camouflaged with cosmetic mirth." The picture is rarely pretty, but it is often tragically funny; you find yourself trying not to laugh, but then you do. In the end, young Penman shows us something of the resilience of the human spirit. If a boy as depraved and abused as Thomas turns out okay, maybe there's hope for the rest of us. (WJ) Blindness by Jose Saramago translated by Giovanni Ponteiro Harcourt Brace, 1997, 304 pp., $22 In the world created by Jose Saramago in Blindness, the ultimate horror is...


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pp. 195-196
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