What if your dreams came true? Not the ones where you win the lottery or dance in the moonlight with Ralph Fiennes, but ones where you see a guy is going to get hit by a bus . . . and he does. Would you uproot your existence and gamble your relationship and future on a few moments of REM-sleep that might be prophetic? David Winkler, the protagonist of Anthony Doerr's richly textured first novel About Grace, has just this issue. He "sees" his beloved infant daughter Grace drowning, and tries to save her the only way he knows how: by walking away from her, her mother, his country and his life. Doerr sets his leading man's pinball in motion, making us care more about the arc of its caroms than the score it generates. By turns weak and heroic, insightful and tone-deaf, Winkler is always compelling in his search for a past he desperately hoped to avoid. When he finally makes his return to Alaska to discover Grace's fate 25 years after he first left home, Winkler must face the result of his choice.

Water inhabits the book as it does nature; inexorable, perilous, essential, mutable in its many forms. It seeps into the cracks of Winkler's psyche, bridging his past and future. From muggy Caribbean dog days to bitter Alaskan winters, Winkler grapples with the substance in a manner befitting his background in hydrology. It's not surprising that he finds water so endlessly captivating; as it often does in nature, the substance acts as a mirror for life itself.

Doerr, who won acclaim for his 2001 short story collection, The Shell Collector, again takes a poignant look at the power of nature and the relative frailty of human connections. Accomplished and sensitive, About Grace should draw more praise for this talented young author. Thane Tierney is a record executive in Los Angeles.

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