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National Book Critics Circle nominees / Fiction

Race is the predominant theme among the fiction finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle award. From the thousands of novels and short story collections written in (or translated into) English, the 23-member board winnowed its list of favorite books down to these five at a meeting two weeks ago. While last year's winner, Ian McEwan's "Atonement," was perhaps the whitest novel imaginable, this year's finalists present a palette of skin tones and the various cultural tensions surrounding them.

The list should be particularly encouraging to new writers, who must feel even more forlorn than usual in light of the New York Times Book Review's recent announcement of plans to shift away from reviewing fiction, except for "big names" and bestsellers. Three of the novels here are debuts. And only one of them, "The Known World," showed up on the final list for the National Book Award back in November. (It lost to Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire.") The winner will be announced March 4 in New York at the NBCC's 30th annual awards ceremony, where prizes for nonfiction, biography, poetry, and criticism will also be presented. We'll review the finalists in those categories over the next four weeks.

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- Ron Charles, book editor

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, Scribner, 369 pp., $25

"Brick Lane" opens in Bangladesh, where Nazneen enters the world two months early, first refusing to breathe, then refusing to eat. Although her mother laments each of these potentially lethal developments, she insists, "We must not stand in the way of Fate." That's a lesson teenage Nazneen carries with her when she's sent to London to marry a 40-year-old stranger. She arrives knowing only two English phrases, "sorry" and "thank you" - enough for her bombastic husband. Every evening, while she cuts his corns, he blathers on about the faded glories of Bangladeshi culture, the "ignorant types" he must endure at work, and his expanding collection of diplomas. Finally, a financial crisis forces him to allow his wife to make a little money taking in tailoring, and through this tiny door to the world, Nazneen manages to leave her apartment, join a fledgling group of British Muslims, and fall in love with another man. The genius of this debut novel lies in Ali's ability to make the peculiar universal while making what's familiar comically odd. Though it's a distinctly interior story, the larger world resonates all along the edges with strains of political and cultural disruption. And Ali handles this frightened girl with a delicate wit that never slips into condescension or tragedy. Booker Prize finalist. (Full review Sept. 18) By Ron Charles

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, Amistad, 388 pp., $24.95

Jones's debut novel unearths yet another peculiarity of American slavery and in the process illustrates that we can't underestimate its perverse contortions of the human spirit. Bizarre as it sounds, in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, a small number of free blacks owned plantations - and slaves. Jones uses this fragile situation as the setting for a novel about a group of black and white Virginians who tried - sometimes nobly, often viciously - to maintain their world in the face of inevitable collapse. The story revolves around Henry Townsend, a black man who, with the indulgence of his former owner, managed to buy a farm and 29 adults. Henry's parents, who labored tirelessly to free him as a child, are horrified by his participation in the flesh market, but Henry is ambitious, and, what's more, he learned from his master that "once you own even one, you will never be alone." In a measured voice that never rises to reflect the agonies and absurdities he describes, Jones moves through decades and across state lines, assembling an apparently random collection of brief scenes that gradually fuse into a stunning portrait of moral confusion. National Book Award finalist. (Full review Aug. 14.) By Ron Charles

A Distant Shore, by Caryl Phillips, Alfred A. Knopf, 277 pp., $23.95

In his seventh novel, Phillips tells the harrowing stories of two immigrants: Solomon, a refugee who's fled the slaughter of the African diaspora, making his perilous way to a provincial neighborhood in northern England; and Dorothy, who's fled her past of divorce, death, and utter aloneness, for a small bungalow a few doors down. In Phillips's graceful and dizzying dance through time, we slip from Dorothy's bitter coherence, back to a younger, sputtering hope, and forward again to a mind in tatters that marks the nights by hot milk and "tablets" at her mental institution. In a narrative propelled by memory, Phillips also slides into a past that Solomon has tried to will away: life in war-torn Africa, where his family is massacred before him and all bounds of honor and decency come undone. "A Distant Shore" tests - and breaks - our tolerance for cruelty, making alienation and abandonment the core of life. Having lost her sister to cancer, Dorothy recalls: "After Sheila died I wrote to myself and pretended it was her doing the writing." Such phantom intimacy is the closest thing to comfort in a novel of failed grasps at redemption and horrors that reduce characters to madness, murder, and incoherent grief. By Christina McCarroll

The time of our singing, by Richard Powers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 640 pp., $27

At the center of Powers's enormous novel is an unlikely romance that develops during Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Among the 75,000 people assembled to hear the celebrated contralto is Delia Daley, the daughter of a black doctor, and David Strom, a German physicist who's just escaped the rising flames of anti-Semitism. Delia, frustrated by the limits placed on her career as a black singer, has come to hear a woman who's shattered every bigoted restriction. David, determined to abandon the racial classifications that are incinerating his people, has come to hear a beautiful voice. In a moment forbidden by custom and outlawed in most of the States, they fall in love. The slights and slurs they endure together are far sharper than anything they've experienced separately, but they're convinced that family can drown out the bass line of racism that runs through their lives. They try to blend their different cultures in the lives of their children, but it's a hard melody to maintain amid the din of American racism. A novel that poses stirring questions about race and identity. (Full review Jan. 23, 2003) By Ron Charles

Old School, by Tobias Wolff, Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pp., $22

It is the nature of teenagers and the necessary fate of writers to indulge in compulsive observation, both of exterior spheres of influence, and - with acute poignancy - their own inner workings. So it is a richly, sometimes painfully detailed world reflected by the adolescent wordsmith at the center of Wolff's debut novel. He is a senior at an exclusive boarding school where, during the early 60s, academic devotion and the Honor Code, Protestantism and privilege are the hallmarks of a "chivalric world apart from the ... hustles and schemes of modernity itself." To be literate is to belong to the elite, and - as a scholarship student - the young man's passionate quest is a chance to earn a private meeting with a famous author by winning a writing competition. (Robert Frost and Ayn Rand make appearances.) The reflective adult voice that narrates the book allows Wolff to disprove his character's own statement that "the life that produces writing can't be written about." Wolff has deftly created a treasure trove of self-reflexive insight about creativity, wrapped into a lyrical, humorous story on a classic theme: the struggle for truthful, personal expression. By Deborah Bloom