BOOKS : Visionary in a red gown

THIS second novel vaults over the difficulty traditionally associated with following up a successful debut. Swirling around nationalist and international politics, government brutality and corruption, it creates a rich impressionist landscape of a society in the throes of rapid and violent change, filtering economics and ideologies through the visions of childhood. The machinations of men in power are presented as both absurd and cruel: magical realism, here, is invented by politicians. The exuberance and extravagance of the images function as satire. This imaginary Guyana is both real and very weird.

The goings-on in the republic, as elections approach and fevers whip up like dust storms, are experienced obliquely by Redhead, the hero of the book. His boyish world is both the bubble inside which he lives and a magnifying glass through which the reader squints at the wider background. Once he's been badly cut on the forehead by an axe-blow accidentally delivered by his uncle Beanstalk, Redhead is propelled into growing up. He sees visions, has presentiments of danger and tragedy, struggles with the advance of knowledge he wants to resist, just as his family views the approach of the newly constructed highway with trepidation. His nightmares are acted out in the book's bloody climax, while a final section allows hope to emerge, a hope that's synonymous with the workings of the imagination.

There's plot, there's story and action in plenty, the different sections and narratives all expertly woven together. But, this being a novel by a poet, it offers tremendous pleasure at the level of language, each word chosen to sing, chime and strike against its companions. This quality of passionate care in the writing lures the reader in, from the very first pages, with the description of Redhead's accident: "As if surprised by the sudden recognition that it was naked, the nubile body gathered about itself a flowing red gown which ran in ceaseless yards covering all of the boy's face in seconds. Beanstalk dropped the axe, produced a scream that shook the birds like gravity-defying fruit from the trees ... The shriek that emptied the trees also woke the house sleeping to the grandfather clock of his axe splitting wood."

The metaphors move the story forwards, but also loop it together sideways and backwards, so that we spot associations, note different levels. People's names are metaphors, connecting them both to the culture and the natural world. No saints' names here, no names of Hollywood stars, but images: Wheels, Bounce, Bashman Goady. In the tradition of Toni Morrison, the characters are mythical because they are so real. There's a wonderful aunt called Footsy who can thread needles with her prehensile toes and "suck as much as a mouthful of water from the shell pond into her vagina. She would lift her dress above her waist, wade in waist-deep, contract her facial muscles, wade out, and release the water, which trickled onto the ground and ran down her spread legs." To prove it's not pee she's releasing, this serious lady drops the water into a cup then drinks it. Showing off to the children, she has more fun than the girls in the brothel who have to use those muscles, hour after hour, night after night, on their flaccid clients.

D'Aguiar's poetic sense comes out in other ways. He's not afraid of non- linear storytelling, often halting the flow of the narrative to fill in the background, deliver a meditation, recount a local legend, ponder the meaning of what he's just said. His active verbs give nature its powerful due. He mixes oral poetry, street vernacular, literary images, slang. His ending celebrates love and solidarity between brothers: "I'm sure he was about to hit me. He said 'I love you.' I was ready to hit him back but I found myself saying, 'I love you too.' The trees were smiling." This is the closest he ever gets to cliche and sentimentality, but you don't mind, because by then you so want it to be true.