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Novels That Blend the Real and Imagined

Trying full-length fiction for the first time, eight writers focus on the world around them from retirement homes to tropical islands

A first novel usually means the debut of a new voice. Sometimes, however, the voice may be a familiar one, like that of Pico Iyer, whose books of travel writing, including ''Video Night in Kathmandu'' and ''Falling Off the Map,'' have established him as an astute observer of a world in flux.

The hero of Iyer's first novel, Cuba and the Night, is Richard, an American photojournalist on assignment in Havana. There he meets Lourdes, an appealing Cuban girl desperate to leave Castro's increasingly impoverished Marxist paradise. It's obvious her interest in Richard is linked to her desire to marry an American and his passport. Yet her feelings for him seem genuine. Richard's doubts and Lourdes's mixed yet sincere motivations for loving him are believably rendered, and Iyer throws in plenty of authentic Cuban atmosphere, but the story is overlong and somewhat forced, lacking the freshness that is a trademark of his nonfiction.

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Emigration is also a theme of Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, a finalist for last year's Booker Prize in England. Most of this vividly evocative story is set in the Asian island-nation of Sri Lanka, where Triton, an unsophisticated but eager country boy, first learns the secrets of what will be his lifelong vocation: cooking. Working as a servant for a cultivated marine biologist, Salgado, young Triton acquires a feel for the right way of doing things.

Salgado's elegantly run household -- like the intricately wrought coral reefs that are the subject of his scientific research is a delicately balanced ecosystem: an oasis of harmony menaced by drastic upheavals in the surrounding world.

Eventually, the rising political unrest forces Salgado and Triton to emigrate to England, where Triton is able to use his skills to open a restaurant. ''I was learning,'' he reflects, ''that human history is always a story of somebody's diaspora: a struggle between those who expel, repel or curtail ... and those who keep the flame alive from night to night....'' ''Reef'' focuses on the flame: the solace and satisfaction Triton finds in the civilized art of pleasing the palate and comforting the soul.

Sigrid Nunez also writes about immigrant experience in her memoir-like first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God. The narrator of this incisive, strongly written story is the daughter of a Chinese-Panamanian father, Chang, and a German mother, Christa, who met in Germany when he was serving in the United States Army at the end of World War II. Only after they've married and settled in a New York City housing project does it become apparent how ill-suited they are.

Stoical Chang fades into the background of his family's life; Christa, endlessly homesick for Germany, is the dominant presence. Their daughter dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, but ends up teaching English to immigrants. As she tries to piece together the meaning of her family's meagre history, the reader is struck with a sense of wonder at the capacity for resilience and poetry amid so much loss.

Fred D'Aguiar, a Guyanese-born poet now living in Maine, explores even starker territory in his complex, yet tautly compressed novel, The Longest Memory. A series of succinct chapters, spoken by different characters, tells the tragic story of a slave whose attempt to flee a Virginia plantation in 1810 results in his death.

We hear from slaves and slaveholders, family members and overseers, from those who favor lenient treatment and those who insist on severity. There is dissension among the slaves as well, between those who believe compliance is the best assurance of a long life and those who cannot endure anything but freedom. The drama of all these conflicts is heightened by the tangled web of family ties that secretly links blacks and whites.

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Unlike the uprooted people in many other of this season's first novels, the English villagers of Tim Pears's In the Place of Fallen Leaves have been living in the same valley for generations. The setting is the long, hot, drought-stricken summer of 1984, and not only does historical time seem slowed down to an ancient rural pace, but even the natural rhythms of the changing seasons seem to have been put on hold, as residents rename the village green ''the village brown.''

The novel's narrator is Alison, the 13-year-old younger daughter of a prosperous farming family. Her grandma is going blind and eccentric, her grandpa is getting weaker, and her mother has to cope with rivalrous sons, a rebellious older daughter, and a husband whose alcoholism has reduced him to near-imbecility.

Yet this seemingly dysfunctional family manages to function quite well, instinctively adjusting to one another's needs, even under the tremendous strain of a drought that leaves no one in the valley untouched. Tim Pears writes with grace and conviction, creating characters and scenes that linger in the mind long after the story is done.

Is it ever too late to write one's first novel? Eighty-five-year-old Effie Leland Wilder's Out to Pasture: But Not Over the Hill is an engaging, if somewhat amateurish, account of daily life at a South Carolina retirement home. While the atmosphere evoked may be a little too genteel for some tastes, there is humor, spirit, and poignancy to be found in these pages.

One of wittiest and most moving portraits of life after retirement was a book that came out last year, by first novelist Alan Isler: The Prince of West End Avenue. Otto Korner, who narrates, is a German Jewish refugee with memories of a pre-Hitler youth amid the excitement of the European literary avant-garde. It's a long way from those heady days to his current cultural assignment: directing his fellow senior citizens at the Emma Lazarus Retirement Home in their production of ''Hamlet.'' As the thespians squabble over who gets to play what, Otto's mind turns to more somber memories of the past, including his feelings of guilt over his failure to recognize the gravity of the Nazi menace.

At the other end of the spectrum from senior citizens, one of last autumn's notable first novels, Sam and His Brother Len, by John Manderino, looks at two boys growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1960s.

Sam, the older brother, goes away to college, falling for every new fad along the way, from protest songs to watered-down Zen Buddhism. Kid brother Len stays closer to home, working on his hockey game, looking after his goldfish, and dating a local girl. Wry, third-person chapters about Sam alternate with equally droll first-person chapters by Len. Manderino has a light, sure touch that deftly conveys the comedy of Sam's pretensions and Len's ingenuousness -- and the underlying wistfulness of their unrealized dreams.

Cuba and the Night

By Pico Iyer

Alfred A. Knopf

234 pp., $22


By Romesh Gunesekera

The New Press

190 pp., $20

A Feather on the Breath of God

By Sigrid Nunez


180 pp., $18

The Longest Memory

By Fred D'Aguiar


138 pp., $20

In the Place of Fallen Leaves

By Tim Pears

Donald I. Fine

310 pp., $21.95

Out to Pasture: But Not Over the Hill

By Effie Leland Wilder

with illustrations by Laurie Allen Klein


177 pp., $14.95

The Prince of West End Avenue

By Alan Isler

Bridge Works

246 pp., $19.95

Sam and His Brother Len

By John Manderino

Academy Chicago

234 pp., $19.95

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