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The fifth novel by Australian author Grenville (Lilian's Story, Joan Makes History) won Britain's prestigious Orange Prize last year and, at its best, it's easy to see why. It is an oddly uneven book, however, sometimes dazzlingly lyrical, compassionate and smart, but occasionally arch and rather clumsy. In the tiny backwater town of Karakarook, New South Wales, where everyone knows everyone else's business, two improbable outsiders fall very tentatively in love. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer, sent to replace a historic bridge some townsfolk believe could be made into a tourist attraction. Museum curator Harley Savage has come from Sydney to create an exhibit of rural applied arts. The atmosphere of the town and the sunbaked, somnolent countryside is brilliantly rendered, and so, usually, are the prickly, deeply self-doubting lead characters; the use of a wonderfully observed dog as Harley's companion throughout is masterly. At other times, however, Grenville seems to be mocking her protagonists, as when Douglas is backed up to a fence by some cows, and the climactic scene, where he does something unwontedly brave, is forced. The subplot about a banker's self-regarding wife who allows herself to be seduced by a Chinese-born butcher is too coy by half. These elements are only disappointing because the book, when on target, is so remarkably clear-sighted about, yet fond of, its quirky characters. (Apr. 1) Forecast: The prize, noted on the cover, should certainly help to draw attention, and the book is readable and likable enough to earn good word of mouth. Admirers of Grenville's previous work are likely to be more critical. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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This fifth novel by renowned Australian author Grenville (Lilian's Story), winner of the Orange Prize, presents the story of two people, both divorced, who for differing reasons are residing temporarily in a small town in the Australian bush. How Douglas, an awkward engineer, and Harley, a plain, big-boned museum curator, meet up as well as connect with the townspeople they are to work with is described with a compassionate eye for human frailty. While unfolding the lives of Douglas and Harley, Grenville depicts the life of the town and some of its eccentric inhabitants, using an effective blend of humor, sensuality, and pathos. She nicely contrasts urban and rural living and shows how even those who work to preserve the historical past may themselves remain haunted by their own personal histories. Both Grenville's description of small-town life in a harsh and rugged environment and her endearing portrayal of the minds and hearts of two people make for a satisfying and memorable read. Recommended for most fiction collections. Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.