ADELISE IS LIKE a dragonfly "fluttering over waterlilies," her mother says. "'You . . . refuse to admit life isn't a game.'" Certainly life is

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Tree of life

A florid coming-of-age novel set in Martinique.

ADELISE IS LIKE a dragonfly "fluttering over waterlilies," her mother says. "'You . . . refuse to admit life isn't a game.'" Certainly life is no game in the midcentury communities of poor people on the Caribbean island of Martinique. So Adelise's mother believes in thinking "every evening on all the things you promised yourself to accomplish during the day" and "giv[ing] in to contentment" only if one promise was perfectly kept. But Adelise, even at 17, gives in only to dreams. Since childhood her closest friend has been a backyard tree, "busy shedding its old flowers and making fresh ones . . . in a kind of rippling shimmy." What her mother doesn't know is that a few years ago Adelise was repeatedly raped by the local cane workers' overseer. But "I didn't feel a thing," Adelise tells herself, and as she grows older she reflects, "I couldn't love anyone. Only my tree and its little white flowers had the power to move my heart."

MAMZELLE DRAGONFLY

by Rapha묠Confiant

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22)

Adelise's mother wants to save her daughter from the heavy labor in the sugarcane fields that made her an old woman at 40, so she sends Adelise to live with her pretty Aunt Philomene in the city. The aunt's home turns out to be in a slum, a "great plain swarming with shacks all tumbledtogether in the most perfect disorder and crossed by a muddy path dotted with wallowing pigs." But Adelise learns how to survive: If she must sell her body to do so, her soul remains strictly her own.

Mamzelle Dragonfly serves up small slices of hardscrabble life with cool, casual precision. For its characters, each day is merely another "day in the stream of time." Passions tend to be uncomplicated spasms of lust, wrath, sorrow, or fear, and hope is "the sterile male papaya's when it goes ahead and flowers." If the unfazed tone in conjunction with the setting recalls certain writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat, this book is more disconcerting. Kincaid's novels are partly arguments about colonialism in which the political awareness of her narrators suggests that one can make historical sense, at least, of life's flux; and Danticat's taut narrative lines firmly contain what might fall into confusion. But in Confiant's novel, events seem to happen for no reason. The effect is a peculiar feeling of vulnerability—the reader, like the book's characters, lives in the present moment with little warning of what comes next. Narrative direction is implied only occasionally, as when Adelise recalls the beloved tree behind her rural home and notes with mild surprise that she's become a city girl.

HOLDING THE BOOK together, besides the focus on Adelise's life between childhood and the age of 26, is the author's voice: a blend of matter-of-fact reportage, coarse vulgarity, and song. Confiant is a Martinique citizen who wrote his novel in his native Creole and translated it into French, then turned it over to translator Linda Coverdale (who produced the glorious English version of Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement). In Mamzelle Dragonfly, swift people "go birdspeed"; those who disappear fast "took scamper powder." One character is "thin as a string's shadow," and another is "tie-him-down nuts." A man slow dancing at the nightclub is "hard-oning" his partner, who just might consider giving him "a tiny taste of her box lunch." Adelise falls in love at last and blissfully idles under "the terrific sunblast of noon."

The setting of Martinique provides connective tissue, too, with Carnival and other social customs, including finely calibrated racial distinctions or identities from black to mulatto, from griffe to capresse, from France-white to beke. And there's thematic glue in the ongoing wars between the sexes. A worthy matron shouts at masculine intruders, "'Leave the women to deal with this or I'll lop off your plums!'" Another suggests, "'Airmail them some caca.'" Philomene sounds about right when she tells Adelise that a fallen man might stay down, but "A woman who falls is a chestnut" and will sprout right up again.

Mamzelle Dragonfly flutters along, touching down in gritty neighborhoods then flying off again, making the life within it feel both fragile and tough, heavy and light.

 
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