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When a young girl awakens to adulthood: a poet's first novel

Not enough people know the name of Diana O'Hehir. One explanation for this is that she's a poet, and living poets -- unless their byline announces verse by May Swenson or James Merrill -- are just about as familiar to most of us as practicing painters. It's usual with artists of most sorts that not much recognition comes around while they're alive and at work, but if the poet or painter is sufficiently talented and fortunate, an audience may wander in after the artist's death. For Diana O'Hehir, readers should arrive much earlier than that -- if not for her poetry (published by University of Missouri Press, Princeton University Press, and in ``Poetry, Paris Review and Antaeus'') -- then for her first novel, which Washington Square Press reprints in paperback this month.

It's called I Wish This War Were Over (Atheneum), and it was originally published in hard cover last March to extravagant praise from many quarters. Being a first novel, and one by a poet at that, it didn't etch O'Hehir's name on our awareness. If we'd been paying attention, it would have. It's certainly good enough.

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``I Wish This War Were Over'' is concerned with 19-year-old Helen Reynolds, whose picaresque adventures take unexpected twists and turns as she travels the United States from west to east on what starts out as a journey of mercy but becomes one of self-discovery.

Helen's mother, Selma, drinks far too much and longs with too much urgency for a man to replace her husband, the father of Helen and younger sister Clara, a man whose idealism took his life by sending him unprepared into the Spanish Civil War.

Because Selma is something of a maternal and social embarrassment, Helen and Clara persuade her to leave their home in California and relocate in Washington, D.C., where employment is promised. Once in Washington, however, Selma comes further undone emotionally and Helen, guilty over dispatching her mother to the opposite side of the country, sets off to patch her up. The year is 1944, and Helen, who boasts a sassy tongue and a hard-boiled veneer, finds everything touched by war.

On the train, she runs into O'Connell, one of her mother's married boyfriends now in uniform, and they stop off in Ogden, Utah. After an encounter that leaves O'Connell with a shoulder punctured by nail scissors, Helen presses on to Chicago, where she looks up her own boyfriend, who is preparing to head off to war. Once again she comes across O'Connell and this time starts an affair with him.

Finally in Washington, Helen finds her mother in a sad state and attempts to shore her up, but only with limited success.

Returning to California, Helen finds an unaccustomed hope welling up within her, a hope that she unexpectedly discovered in O'Connell's true affection for her, and she comes to realize that she must leave her unhappy childhood behind, that she is responsible for her own life.

Helen's epiphany is a familiar one in the long tradition of novels about young people awakening to adulthood, but in O'Hehir's hands the route to the realization is one that's marked with convincing insights into characters who come alive and a companionable understanding of sorrows and satisfactions that are sometimes inexpressible.

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It is Helen's compassion masked by a stony exterior that makes her experiences rewarding as they push her along. Her jagged edges of immature resentment and mock hardness wear away, leaving her at book's end not much older, but significantly wiser.

O'Hehir's prose is a joy, unobtrusively poetic when imagistic playfulness is appropriate, tough when conveying deep emotion, and thoroughly in control throughout. It is her accomplishment that the novel speeds by like an adventure story, and yet repeatedly touches the reader with a poignant resonance that is uncannily like real life.

A regular column in the Book Review.

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