Picks and Pans Review: Celebration

updated 09/22/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mary Lee Settle

The locales of this amazing novel are exotic: Kurdistan, London, Hong Kong, Africa and the moon. So are the characters. The heroine, Teresa Cerrutti, is a young American widow and anthropologist. After surviving a bout with cancer, she moves to London, and there, in the British Museum, she meets a Scotsman who is recovering from malaria. They move in together, and in time he introduces her to his friend, a Dinka tribesman from the Sudan who has become a Jesuit priest. She in turn introduces her lover to an old friend who is outrageously gay and to the people who live in her apartment house: a CIA man who spies on them, the female editor of a raunchy sex magazine, a bickering couple, a handsome doctor. The novel is made up of long flashbacks: harrowing tales of adventure and death in primitive Kurdistan, corruption in Hong Kong, skulduggery in Africa. Some of the characters have long soliloquies that seem like brilliant arias in a grand opera. Settle, who is known as a Southern writer (The Beulah Quintet), shows the same humor that she has in the past—her spies are clowns, characters show up in bizarre costumes, peculiar relics assume an enormous importance. But she has never been so daring or more profound. When one of the characters tells another one a complicated story, the listener realizes that "he was trying to connect things that were random and terrible in both our minds." And that's what Settle is doing in this novel. In addition to being a superb travel writer—her descriptive powers are extraordinary—Settle gives her characters dialogue that penetrates. Many of these lines stick with the reader, as when the black priest says gently, "Sometimes I think we are asked to understand too much." Celebration is a thoroughly engaging, highly original novel. It certainly deserves to be ranked as one of this year's best. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $17.95)

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