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2 The Cure for Death by Lightning

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Virago pounds 9.99.

Having cut open a live cow, homesteader John Weeks hands the purplish red ovaries to his daughter, saying, "This is what makes you female." The Cure for Death by Lightning is a rite-of-passage story set in 1940s Canada. Sex and death tangle on practically every page as 15-year-old narrator Beth Weeks has to choose between being "good" - that is, staying home when home is a place of incest, bestiality and madness - or facing whatever is killing children at night in the bush. Is it a bear, is it a coyote, or is it sexuality in beast form?

The "shapeshifter", Coyote, is an Angela Carter device that doesn't always work, but overall the atmosphere is potent and the writing powerful. The landscape is invested with Betty's ambivalence about her sexual desire ("Raspberries hung like nipples on tall thorny stalks") and her loyalties. The question that drives the narrative is: can Beth make peace with herself? The recipes in her mother's scrapbook, including the cure of the title, serve as a quirky culinary paper-trail.

The Cure for Death by Lightning is an ambitious first novel. Gail Anderson- Dargatz has thrown in so many ingredients that it takes her a good third of the book to mix them together. Be patient. It's an enthralling debut.

Josie Barnard

2 All the Dark Air by Livi Michael, Secker pounds 9.99.

In her third novel, Michael continues her preoccupation with poverty and crime in a harrowing and compelling account of a woman's determination to survive in the face of adversity. Ostracised by the sister of her recently deceased mother, Julie thinks all her prayers are answered when a heart- throb from her schooldays, Mick, invites her to move in with him. But it soon becomes clear that her new home is not all that Julie had hoped for. She is forced to tiptoe around a house without floorboards, where icicles hang from the walls, and things go from bad to worse when she discovers she is pregnant. While Mick finds his distraction in drugs, Julie attempts to find solace in her Mind Power Group.

Livi Michael's insight into the plight of the impoverished is portrayed with remarkable clarity. She treats her subject matter without sentimentality, creating emotion by the continual juxtaposition of life and death. By the same token, the author finally leaves us wondering whether or not there is any hope for Julie's baby in a world where crime and deprivation are so prevalent.

All The Dark Air is at times depressing. Nevertheless it remains engaging in its unfaltering honesty - not surprising from an author who has emerged from the ordeals of bad housing, unemployment and single parenthood herself.

Chloe Walker