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A Muslim girl's childhood in the final days of colonial Algeria

Lallia (Le Cow-boy), by Djanet Lachmet. Translated by Judith Still. New York: Carcanet. 150 pp. $15.95 Originally published in France in 1983, this slim first novel by Algerian author Djanet Lachmet traces the childhood of a young girl who comes of age during the final days of France's colonial rule of Algeria.

Lachmet - who was born in Algiers - obviously draws from her own life in creating the tale of Lallia, a middle-class Muslim girl who moves freely among all the worlds of her town - Muslim, Jewish, French/Christian, the well-to-do, and the poor. Lachmet's writing is evocative, creating vivid images of Arab life, from the bustling souk, or market, to the squalor of the slums to the pampered privacy of the women's baths.

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The author allows Lallia to tell her own story in a first-person narrative that engages the reader with a child's point of view in perceiving the increasingly turbulent times surrounding the Algerian struggle for independence - and the splintering of lives and friendships that results as one culture throws off the dominance of another.

Ironically, Algeria's struggle for freedom means a loss of freedom for Lallia. As distrust between Arabs and the French grows, Lallia's friendship with a young French boy (``Le Cow-boy'') becomes a casualty of the conflict. And as the dangers of war encroach increasingly on the leisurely pace of daily life, Lallia's far-flung wanderings are also curtailed.

Gone are the days when Lallia frequented the slums, where she befriended a hunchbacked girl, or the black quarter, where she spent long hours with a girl involved with ``the brothers'' of the resistance. Increasingly, Lallia is confined to the cramped world inside the walls of her parents' home. Even her attempt to break free - by running away from home - ultimately leads her back home again, this time to a new confinement, an emotional and psychological one.

The weakness in Lachmet's writing is that in structuring her novel through a child's eyes, she relies too heavily on the way a child tends to recount or remember events - skipping from one scene to another with no clear progression of ideas, abruptly abandoning one theme for another.

Still, for readers interested in exploring the emerging voices of North African writers - and in learning more about a culture that is all too often reduced to snippets of news in the West - ``Lallia'' is a place to begin.

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