BOOK REVIEW / No charge for lost souls: 'Bailey's Cafe' - Gloria Naylor: Heinemann, 14.99 pounds

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CAFE SOCIETY is changing. Four years ago the film Bagdad Cafe created a magical American cafe as an arena for miraculous sleights of hand and changes of condition. Now Gloria Naylor presents a supernatural diner with some of the properties of limbo: a place in which hamburgers and peach cobblers are ladled out to lost souls until they head off, destined for extinction or redemption. 'Unless there's some space, some place, to take a breather for a while,' explains the proprietor, 'the edge of the world - frightening as it is - could be the end of the world.'

The metaphorical aspect of Bailey's Cafe is quickly made apparent. This is a place which not everyone can find because it's not always there ('we're only there when they need us'), where the menu is unfixed, the prices and service optional. One customer has a daughter called Angel; a neighbouring pawnbroker is called Gabriel; the nearby boarding-house for single women - a refuge which can be approached only by particular women at particular times - is managed by an Eve. There are visions and voids, strange apparitions and mysterious disappearances. At the end there is a birth and a spiritual is sung.

But it is in chronicling individual histories that the novel is at its most powerful. There is the beautiful young woman called Peaches who mutilates herself, and there is the dutiful wife who becomes a heroin addict. There is the Stanford maths graduate who goes to his work as a bouncer in housedresses and little cotton rompers. And there is the 12-year-old girl who has been sold by her brother into a life of sex in a cellar.

All these characters are black; all have suffered undeserved hard times. The world they inhabit is one of harsh experiences and stern help, of calloused palms and warm smiles. In expressing their stories Naylor has been helped by the liberating example given by Toni Morrison's demotic dramatic narratives: her voices are punchy and direct; the inventory of their batterings is precise and unstinted. She may have been less well-served by seven years spent as a Jehovah's Witness in New York and the South.

This is a novel which depends greatly on the observations of a forthright unsophisticate who describes himself, dispiritingly, as 'majoring in Life'. At its worst this means sentimentality, of the choke-in-the-throat kind: 'There's not always a Christmas tree, but there is always laughter.' Frequently it occasions homespun epigrams. At its best, it leads to vivid testimony.