PARADISE By Elena Castedo New York: Grove Weidenfeld 328 pp., $19.95 NINE-YEAR-OLD Solita, the heroine and narrator of Elena Castedo's first novel, is the daughter of republican refugees who've fled Franco's Spain for the fictional city of Galmeda in an unnamed Latin American country.
While her ``Papi'' is quick to point out the advantages of life in the New World, Solita's ``Mami'' has other plans. Tired of her husband's political activities - and of the hand-to-mouth existence they've been leading - she responds with alacrity to a friend's invitation to spend some time at a luxurious country estate called El Topaz. We're going to Paradise, she tells Solita and Solita's four-year-old brother Niceto, who is too young to understand much, but whose babyish charms and big brown eyes (like his mother's) command instant indulgence.
Solita is not so lucky. Removed, albeit temporarily, from her beloved father and from the friendly circle of refugee life in the city, she finds herself alone and without a reliable guide in the treacherous, hothouse anti-Eden of El Topaz, where she is expected to be the deferential companion to the family's three spoiled daughters.
While Solita's mother ingratiates herself with her hostess and the other house guests, Solita is teased and tormented by her new ``friends.'' Patricia, the eldest, is the ringleader. The twins, who are Solita's age, are Grace, who's no better than Patricia, and Gloria, who shows some signs of decency. Idle, mischievous, snobbish, and spiteful, all three are portrayed with appallingly believable accuracy.
El Topaz, seen by Solita's mother as a safe haven from politics and privation, is, as Solita experiences it, more of a fascist country than Franco's Spain and far more physically uncomfortable than the impoverished streets of Galmeda. Forced to go along with the girls' schemes, advised by her mother not to complain about their injustices, Solita feels her basic dignity is at stake. She has no privacy: living in someone else's house, she cannot complain when the girls propose to search her room to see if she has any money.
You can get where you want to go by using other people's roads, Solita's mother explains, but to do so, you have to do things their way. Torn between her natural sense of honor and independence and her feeling that she must protect her mother's position, Solita (whose name is Spanish for little lonely one) must chart her own course amid dangerous waters.
Castedo, whose own family fled Spain for Chile, and who went on to earn advanced degrees in the United States, where she now lives, has done a brilliant job of showing us the world through the eyes of an intelligent child. Solita is an utterly convincing character: sharply observant, yet still fresh and innocent; spirited, but not a hoyden. Although she has none of the irritating coyness of a premature sophisticate, this little girl is quick on the uptake.
Seen through her eyes, El Topaz emerges for what it is: a haven for idle, pretentious people, a kind of sexual swap-meet where disgruntled wives, desperate single women, dissolute husbands, and sought-after bachelors play out cynical, childish, and ultimately dangerous games.
In contrasting the young narrator with the material she narrates, Castedo deftly avoids heavy-handed cuteness in favor of understated but powerful irony. This is not the sort of irony that distances narrator from narrative or reader from text: It is an irony based upon the gap between what children are told to do and what adults actually want them to do. Thus, although it contains elements of social satire, ``Paradise'' also retains the emotional intensity of the youthful experience it describes.
There is a great deal of hilarity, outrage, indignation, and anxiety, but there is subtlety as well: Solita's early sense of superiority about having a caring father is gradually, if not completely, undermined, as the novel goes on to reveal that Solita's idealistic ``Papi'' may be, in his way, as disappointing a parent as her opportunistic ``Mami.''
``Paradise'' is a classic coming-of-age novel, in which a girl comes to understand herself, her family, and the complicated social world in which they live. Indeed, it is also an intriguing portrait of certain aspects of Latin American culture and society, from the refugees and immigrants, who are not always welcome in its midst, to the disdained peasantry, whom Solita comes to know, and the cliquish circles of the rich and well-born, who only ``know'' one another.