2 minute read
Ginia Bellafante

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s young first-time novelists have persisted in making detachment their dominion. Those writers have created worlds in which contemporary characters speak in a passionless staccato as they find themselves ravaged not by tragedy but rather by vague ennui.

In her debut novel, Private Altars (Random House; 322 pages; $21), Katherine Mosby audaciously bucks such fashionable themes, and the result is a stunningly lyrical work of fiction. Set in the South during the 1920s and ’30s, the novel revolves around the suffering of Vienna Daniels-a woman, Mosby writes, whose “face had the stamp of character intelligence sometimes bestows, and the look of ruined beauty.”

Fluent in Latin and Greek, Vienna is a Northerner who lands in the small town of Winsville to marry a man who will never appreciate her intensity or intellect. Like some fiercely independent Victorian heroines, Vienna is doomed to the life of a pariah by the narrow-mindedness of others. She is betrayed and abandoned by friends and lovers; her children remain outcasts by association; she is destroyed by the death of those dearest to her. Vienna is, above all, a woman for whom brilliance and sensuality provide a painfully meager shield against the truculence of fate.

But Private Altars is about more than the strife Vienna is forced to endure; it is about language. In sentence after lush sentence, Mosby is intent on showing the reader that she was primarily a poet before trying fiction. Turn to nearly any page and find an image like this, which describes Vienna’s distaste for mundane tea-table conversation: “It was as remote from her interests as the hieroglyphs spewed from the endless coiling tongue of a ticker-tape machine.” The trouble is that the accretion of similes sometimes slows the story to a maddening pace. Nevertheless, Mosby’s debut serves as a rich and accomplished antidote to the works of so many nouveau minimalists.

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