Picks and Pans Review: The War Zone

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alexander Stuart

Set in the English countryside during one dangerous summer, Stuart's first novel very early announces that he is going to take an unflinching look at a family about to lose "the protective film of accepted behavior." An architect, his pregnant wife and their two teenage children are stuck in a car that runs into a fallen tree, and in the aftermath of the accident, "in a haze of sweat, motor oil and birth smells," brother Jack is born. Jack's brutal arrival not only punctuates the discord caused by the family's recent move from London to Devon, but ultimately the event shatters their conventional familial bonds. Young Tom, the novel's narrator, sees the problem immediately: "How do you ask your sister, 'Is something happening with you and Dad?' "

A great deal is happening in this novel, and Stuart spares few details as Tom investigates the relationship between his father and big sister Jessie. Finding proof of their affair, he struggles between his revulsion and the compulsion to know more about what is happening. Drawn to Jessie and still desperate to uncover the ordinary sexual secrets she holds ("She's a major source of information for me when it comes to the inner rumblings and eruptions that go through girls' heads"), Tom becomes a silent participant in the incestuous fall of his family.

He sees Jessie as evil, which she is; he sees his father as selfish, which he is; he thinks of his mother, "wondering once again if she's guilty, what her crime is." Ultimately, Tom will find himself trapped by the machinations of his sister as well. Written with a sense of detail that is frequently unsettling, The War Zone proceeds with a primitive force that is at times reminiscent of D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel. Pulled into Stuart's perverse and smoldering landscape, the reader does not so much read this book as become its prisoner. (Doubleday, $16.95)

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