BOOK REVIEW / Stung by shifting sand at Little Rock: Net of Jewels - Ellen Gilchrist: Faber, pounds 14.99

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RHODA MANNING, one of Ellen Gilchrist's regulars, was last seen carrying menopausal melancholia all around Mexico two books ago. And now she's back. Are we in for more platitudinous dialogue? More of catching Rhoda come to what's billed as her senses? But in Net of Jewels, a novel that shrewdly subverts America's wish for offthe-peg emotions, Rhoda gets to revisit the turbulence of her formative years of womanhood.

Set in the deep, magnetic South that is Gilchrist's heartland, it tells its story in Rhoda's voice: 'So they had done it to me again . . . Destroyed my life . . . something snapped.' They, unsurprisingly, are her folks. 'My daddy's family owns the whole county where they live. So now he's rich and he can go back there.' Going back isn't Rhoda's ticket. At the novel's opening she's happy where she is, at Vanderbilt, being a Kappa Alpha, a champion swimmer, a prize-winning essayist.

But Rhoda does go back South, and stumbles with chilling innocence through life's shallows, riling her mother, mistaking danger for temptation. The small-town world of 1950s Alabama feels like the lull before the lull. Rhoda kills a guy in a car crash, not really to alleviate the boredom you understand, but simply because speed and booze are a zany cocktail.

The narrative threatens to run away as it chases Rhoda to Tuscaloosa, where college life is a touch incestuous. The claustrophobia that swarms through its sorority balls drives Rhoda towards the testosterone zone, in the form of Malcolm, a chum of Charles William, Rhoda's best friend.

One of the novel's real achievements is the rendering of this friendship between Rhoda and Charles, full of obliquity and mutual comfort, the eye of trouble's storm. Charles William shares Rhoda's passion for poetry, for writers who dig through the bone and along the nerve of human desire. While Haley rocks around the clock, they thrill to Molly Bloom's soliloquy on disc.

Charles William's recklessness is shrewd whereas Rhoda's is dangerous. He is gay; he courts survival. But when Rhoda meets Malcolm she goes horizontal and berserk. The ensuing pregnancy, marriage and nosedive are predictable, but Gilchrist gives them grist and a Tennessee Williams touch of panache.

The novel falters when it casts its gaze across the moral landscape, picking up on civil rights, on the Little Rock crisis, the bus boycott in Montgomery. Rhoda's brand of Southern comfort and that of her folks requires servility and compliance from the blacks around them. 'I didn't know where I stood. I was for (civil rights) when I was with my friends and against it when I was with my father.'

The novel concentrates on Rhoda, but Rhoda cannot focus her life on anything. Busted marriage, shady abortion, dates with the shrink, a torrent of booze, a bout of repentance, a crazy bender, all seem to vie as the means to Rhoda's own liberation. Still, Gilchrist manages to eschew the easy, sentimental option. Life isn't wonderful, it's weird. Where Gilchrist of old would have piped the icing, Net of Jewels slices inward, presses home, detects decay, and like Rhoda's literary mentors digs through the bone and into the chill of human experience, unflinchingly.