Books: Reconstruction by Claudia Casper Quartet, pounds 10 Eating Fire and Drinking Water by Arlene J Chai Headline Review, pounds 17.99

Dry bones and Manila envelopes; When does a fable turn to soap? Patrick Gale on novels that mix private life and big ideas
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The reconstruction referred to in Claudia Casper's title is manifold. Most obviously, the novel spans the time it takes her heroine, Margaret, to research, design and construct a scale model of Lucy, the australopithecus afarensis fossil which disproved the theory that our primate ancestors became bipedal as a result of developing a larger brain. Then there is the extensive repair of Margaret's long-neglected teeth by a hand-rubbing dentist. Her frosty doctor husband has walked out on her before the novel begins, and during the narrative she goes over and over her marriage's failure as a detective might reconstruct the known events leading up to a violent crime.

Lastly, all these reconstructions feed into the novel's emotional core: the piecemeal rebuilding of Margaret's self-respect and capacity to enjoy life. The dentistry literally restores her smile. The construction of Lucy - a kind of primal parent - and a gradually acquired understanding of the sad fate of her own mother enable Margaret to tap wells of female strength in order to triumph.

What might have proved galumphingly schematic material becomes a springboard for Casper's ferocious wit. Her observations of her heroine's wilful descent into primitive eccentricity are deft, her evocation of creative and academic obsession a delight, and her eventual award of hard-won happiness believable rather than pat. All in all, this is a sparkler of a first novel.

Hideously packaged to look like sub-Allende, Arlene Chai's Eating Fire and Drinking Water is done no favours by its publishers. At heart this is a political thriller, told in the wry language of fable. Set in an unnamed city plainly based on Manila in the last months of the Marcoses, it uses a young journalist heroine to weave together wildly diverse strands into a tapestry of a community on the brink of liberating crisis.

As the President calls in the troops and a notorious torturer to crush a student uprising, Madam, his formidable wife, plans the royal wedding of the century and tries to ignore a seer's prophecy that her glory days are numbered. Chai's use of downtrodden journalist, Clara, as her teller proves unwieldy as we enter the minds of the student leader, a judge, the judge's rebel son, a senatorial Lothario and a court jeweller, as well as the presidential couple. Historical narratives are always dogged by our knowing the ending in advance. Chai's narrator exacerbates this lack of drama with a plethora of "if-I-knew-then" comments.

However, the novel briefly takes wing when it leaves behind the rehash of history to tell how the narrator stumbles on the identities of the parents who left her to be raised by nuns. This tale within a tale is wild stuff; the mother's sense of pious martyrdom has apparently caused her to receive the stigmata and the father is the grand sugar baron about to marry into the family Marcos.

Chai can write powerfully - the torture scenes are chilling in their understatement - and has assembled a plot that would do a Brazilian soap opera proud, but this novel is a curate's egg. The magic-realist elements - the curse, the stigmata, the sense of predestination - distance where they need to draw in. The attempt to combine the personal and political results in Chai spreading her attention too thinly to satisfy, like a Boito libretto without Verdi's music.

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