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A birth announcement from Down Under

THE SOOTERKIN By Tom Gilling Viking 224 pp., $23.95

Tom Gilling has written a witty novel that strains credulity, but that's understandable because it's about Australia, a place that strains credulity.

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This isn't Crocodile Dundee territory. Gilling's story opens in the early 19th century when Australia reeks of poverty, crime, and ... well, it just plain reeks. Rancid whale blubber gives Hobart Town, where this strange story takes place, a particularly memorable stench.

"Sooterkin" is a comic reminder that the land Down Under was once a Dickensian nightmare for England's criminal castaways, not the gorgeous resort destination of today.

Poor Sarah Dyer thinks she has her hands full trying to raise a young pick-pocket with no help from her alcoholic husband. But when she gives birth to a seal, her prospects start looking up.

After all, the poor residents of Hobart Town don't enjoy many entertaining diversions. The local Gazette - quoted throughout with great comic effect - struggles to attract readers with news of disasters and misfortunes of all kinds. A woman giving birth to a seal is a perfect replacement for the previous week's story about a two-legged unicorn.

Too outlandish to believe? Remember, this is Australia. Considering the animals here, what wouldn't you believe?

Soon, a parade of Hobart's bizarre citizenry are passing through the Dyer's hovel, plunking down a few shillings to look at their newest (and furriest) resident.

Everyone has a private theory about the nature and cause of this little creature. Indeed, in an age as scientifically confident as ours, "Sooterkin" is a timely parable about the folly of clinging to a narrow set of principles in the face of something inexplicable. The town's natural scientist believes it might be a sooterkin, a mythical monster born to women several centuries ago in Holland. The police chief's wife suspects fraud. Rev. Kidney is eager to avoid passing any judgement on this event at all.

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The seal's eight-year-old brother, meanwhile, simply loves him. "What is it like to be kissed by a seal pup?" the narrator asks. "It's like nuzzling tripe. Or blowing your nose on a stinging nettle."

The incongruous parts of this novel are something like the parts of that other Australian original: the duck-billed platypus. This is a book composed almost entirely of side characters, but fortunately Gilling is a comic genius with side characters.

For instance, Mr. Scully is a 100 percent wit-free man of science recently converted to the revelations of phrenology - the practice of reading a person's character by analyzing the shape of his head. (His house is decorated with framed water colors of diseased organs.) Living in this resort for convicts, he looks forward to the day when people can be arrested on the basis of their facial features.

Rev. Kidney came to the colony as a chaplain in order to escape his creditors. Expecting an easy fortune in lush paradise, for a year he survived (barely) in a tent surrounded by mud so deep that sheep regularly drowned in it. What little he brought with him from England was stolen by less refined immigrants.

But now he's living a relatively stable life, under the care of a housekeeper who starves him and works as an abortionist on the side. The last thing he wants is to be dragged into some theological quagmire about the nature of a seal-baby. Largely to avoid that controversy, he rides off into the woods to see a dying farmer and pretty much takes the plot with him.

Meanwhile, when the seal pup is stolen, his young brother sets out in pursuit, followed by his guilt-ridden father, and then the entire town of bizarre characters. It's always funny, but the provocative theme of the book's opening dissipates.

"Sooterkin" spent more than a month on the bestseller list in Sydney last year. As a witty summer read, it's as slippery and unexpected as a ... well, you know.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society