Paul Witcover, Waking Beauty (HarperPrism, 1997)

In Waking Beauty, a lush and sensuous first novel, Beauty is a scent that rises from the forest known as Herwood at night and lures the men of the Hierarchate from their homes forever. Women cannot sense Beauty, and it falls to them to protect their men by binding them to their beds, plugging their nostrils, and inserting a breathing tube in the Trachea, the opening in the throat made during a coming-of-age ceremony. The women sit up all night to keep watch, forced to steal their rest during the day, because to lose a husband or son or father to Beauty is the most terrible crime of all. The price of negligence is to be shorn of hair and name and sold, usually to one of the High Houses as a "Cat," a prostitute.

The social structure of the Hierarachate is patriarchal, rigid and controlled through the religion which involves devotion to the sacred image of the Wheel, the creator figure of the Spinner, and a pantheon of saints. The stories of the saints are imbedded in the culture, told and retold by simularters, artists surgically altered to bond with the simulars, the marionette-like puppets used to re-enact the tales.

The complex plot of Waking Beauty revolves primarily around three characters: Rose Rubra, whose wedding turns into a nightmare; Rumer, a voluptuary in the House of Illicium, one of the formally designated houses of prostitution; and Sylvestris, a simularter Amazon.comcommanded by the Blessed Sovereign to uncover heresy and conspiracy. Their journey takes them to the heart of Herwood, revealing the mystery of Beauty and a remarkable transformation.

Witcover interweaves folk and fairy tale images and references into the story, not the least of which is the title of the book: not only is Beauty awakened, but characters are awakened on different levels, some under horrific circumstances. The narrative is dreamlike, told in present tense. Often, the use of present tense adds immediacy to a story, but in this case, the reader drifts from image to image, experiencing the pull of a dream from which it is nearly impossible to awaken. It is up to the reader to determine the overall structure which unfolds within the context of the plot, however, and at times the structure seems frustratingly obscure.

The writing has a tactile quality. It is highly descriptive, emphasizing and appealing to the senses. It is this attention to the sensory that lends the story its eroticism. The main characters, particularly Rose, Rumer, and Sylvestris are vividly and often sympathetically portrayed.

The style and content may not be for everyone, but readers who appreciate imaginative, multi-leveled writing will want to give this a try.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]