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Snow Falling on Cedars

by David Guterson

Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

A Timeless Passion

by Naim Attallah

Quartet, pounds 10

David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars overcomes some of the technical difficulties facing the first-time novelist by making a courtroom the focus of its action. It is a brave step given that this formula has been virtually exhausted by trashy film and television drama, but Guterson's deeper purpose is to examine the American criminal justice system (and, by extension, the American conscience) for evidence of deep-rooted corruption.

Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American fisherman, finds himself charged with first-degree murder after the body of a fellow gill-netter is hauled out of Puget Sound in 1954. As the case unfolds, it becomes clear that many of the San Piedro islanders have found it hard to unlearn wartime animosity towards the Japanese, and conviction on the grounds of racial prejudice seems inevitable.

The case is complicated by the presence at the trial of Ishmael Chambers, the editor of the San Piedro Review, whose coverage of proceedings is coloured by his childhood involvement with the woman who became Miyamoto's wife. The columns of the Review provide Guterson with a means of commenting on the trial's progress from an apparently neutral perspective, though he is also concerned to bring the idea of journalistic disinterest under scrutiny. Chambers, who has lost his arm in a war against people resembling Miyamoto, examines his complicated feelings in newsprint, revealing himself to be the most fully achieved character in a novel largely populated by ciphers.

This is a novel of substance, tackling large themes on an impressively wide canvas. Guterson has loaded his book with authentic-sounding detail, and his attention to the minutiae of post-mortem procedure, salmon fishing, kendo techniques and courtroom decorum ensures interest never flags. There is no deadweight, and no such thing as incidental detail. The boy who dies at Betio is caught like a salmon in the net of something larger than he can understand, as this description of the gill-netter's art suggests: "Sometimes, hauling net, he came across a fish thrashing hard enough to elicit a cracking thump when it banged off the Islander's transom. Like all the others, it went into the hole to die over the course of hours."

Guterson's artistry and command of his material combine to make a remarkable book, distinguished by its moral seasoning.

Naim Attallah has written, in A Timeless Passion, a book that is big despite its brevity. Carlo, returning to Italy for his mother's funeral, ventures outside his stale but adequate marriage to explore sin as a source of spiritual strength. Embarking on an affair with an anthropologist half his age who is researching voluntary castration among termites, Carlo discovers that he is man enough for damnation (while the novel, mirroring his story, borrows its shape from the Requiem Mass). Attallah proves he is capable of writing an outstanding novel, though this may not be it. One looks forward to the full-length work of fiction he is sure to produce before long.

Andrew Biswell