Picks and Pans Review: Poison

updated 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Kathryn Harrison

In her powerful third novel, Harrison, author of Exposure, has abandoned the theme of her earlier works—the weird psychosexual underbelly of contemporary life. Instead, she examines the weird psychosexual underbelly of life during the Spanish Inquisition.

Embroidering what research exists on 17th-century Spain, Harrison follows the lives of Marie Louise de Bourbon, a French-born queen of Spain, and a fictional character, Francisca Luarca. Born on the same day, the princess and the pauper lead oddly parallel lives. Both yearn for romance, and both are eventually done in by a paradoxical culture that abhors female sexuality but prizes fertility. Francisca is tortured for fornicating with a priest; Marie Louise is poisoned, Harrison suggests, for failing to produce an heir for her impotent husband.

Alternating between the two women's stories, Harrison weaves a tale as tight as the silk created by the worms the Luarca family raises. But sometimes she seems to get lost in descriptive chapters. Ironically, the narrative comes most alive in the passages depicting Francisca's deadly torture on the rack and in the violent couplings with her lover. As she has proved in her earlier works, Harrison is best at examining the connection between anger and passion, a connection that, for her, spans continents, classes and centuries. (Random House, $23)

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