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BOOK REVIEW / Shopping malls meet tulgy woods: 'Second Nature' - Alice Hoffman: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

ALICE HOFFMAN doesn't immediately strike you as a serious writer. There is the winsome face peeping beneath its mushroom hat. There are the pastel covers, the syrupy praise ('I'll re-read her when I can stand the joy'), the advance warning of lyricism, romance and magic. Then there is the book, which soothes the most savage breast.

A wounded 'Wolf Man' has been found by trappers and transported to St Joseph's hospital where, feral and silent, he is diagnosed as mad and due to be institutionalised for life by the resident psychiatrist, Stuart. Stuart's sister, Robin, is the first person to touch the Wolf Man in kindness. He speaks, begging for help, and Robin promptly spirits him away to the house she shares with her teenage son Connor. They live on an island once owned by her grandfather, Old Dick. Here she teaches the Wolf Man how to read, eat, garden and make love.

Like every wild child, our hero has to learn how to pass for a 'civilised' man in the island's gossipy community, but it is civilisation itself that comes under scrutiny. Gradually, he remembers that his name is Stephen, and that, as a three-year-old, he was the sole survivor of an aeroplane crash in Michigan, rescued, suckled and raised by a she-wolf. Cooked food burns his mouth; he can run faster than a car and kill with a single blow. Yet his gentleness is such that he will not even kill snails. He is the only person who can make Robin's dying grandfather, yearning for his own lost youth, happy. When Stuart returns to the island on the verge of a nervous breakdown after losing his prize patient, Stephen accomplishes what Prozac cannot. But as Stephen's savage nature becomes known, a spate of mysterious deaths on the island escalate into murder.

To update The Jungle Book takes some nerve, but Hoffman breaks the heart even as she makes you laugh. Robin believes that once Stephen can read and write he can decide his own fate, but Stephen wants to find his way back to the wild, and distrusts language. In place of Kipling's marvellous verbosity we have Stephen's wordless brotherhood with the pack, described with a vivid simplicity that carries utter conviction. Our ambivalent response to the wolf - simultaneously our ultimate image of savagery and a far more social creature than mankind - is beautifully encapsulated when the island's murderer is unmasked:

'Men think about right and wrong, they have to debate it, discuss it, draw upon possibilities and statistics, laws and codes. Wolves have to know. They have to know in an instant, pure instinct, not thought, because they can never be wrong. If they're wrong, the ice they walk upon cracks, and they drown . . . . If they're wrong, their brothers and sisters starve and their pups are shot as they run. If they're wrong, the rabid wolf comes back . . . .'

No amount of beauty, natural intelligence, gentleness or love can save Stephen. Crucified both by his own incompatible longings to return to the wild and by his passion for Robin, he cannot enjoy the freedom - like Mowgli or Tarzan - of being both in and out of his brave new world. The choice he makes rends the island.

Perhaps because she is pretty, female and a storyteller Hoffman has been sneeringly cast by many critics in this country as a feel-good novelist. There are probably not enough of these around anyway, but her earlier novels - about incest, bereavement, alcoholism, and the death of a child from AIDS - scarcely fall into this category. She occupies a territory where shopping malls meet tulgy woods, angels haunt trees, divorcees can find love, and evil is a kind of sickness. It exists somewhere between Updike, Angela Carter and the pre-Schindler Spielberg. If she describes the wonders of love, children and starlit nights with voluptuous magic realism, each of her ten novels also examines the intolerable tension between individuals and their community. Her narrative pace is Hollywood-orientated, and increasingly predictable, but her imagination is not. Hoffman shows how the pursuit of happiness can go wrong with a lethal grace that marks her as a novelist of real stature.