As clients of the Moulton Foundation for which Lindy Caton works, Ulwa, Adhah and Seelah are ancient and mysterious crones indeed, considered gypsies by many in Acheron (pronounced Ash Run), Louisiana. Early on, Lindy realizes that the almost helpless Ulwa is, well, actually Eve, of Eden fame, and that her two sidekicks have accompanied her down through the ages to assist her in her unknown fate. Mainly this appears to be a rock - hard resistance to the eternal blandishments of Cain, who also has survived through five millennia, pursuing his mother, once even saving her in the Flood, when Noah wouldn't.

A remarkable first novel, Cain's Version is a mysterious retelling of the time when humankind left animal instinct behind and took on responsibility for their own actions. As told here, God is mostly absent, and Adam only a little less so. These authorial choices sometimes reduce the drama to little more than cosmic cases of a perdurable Oedipal complex and sibling rivalry. In demanding his mother's love back, Cain calls for a change of mind that is more than the addled old woman can offer. In the process, he recommits (upon a surrogate Abel) the murder that caused all the trouble in the first place - and with no more guilt about it.

Lindy, the 21st - century anchor to the drama, has recently moved to Acheron to be near her elderly father. She still has issues with her own mother, who deserted the family for a lover. The emotional impact of her father's death and the reappearance of her ex - husband perhaps account for her over - ready acceptance of this magically realistic state of affairs.

Frank Durham is a retired Tulane University physics professor who honed his writing at the Sewanee Writers Conference. Invocation of the "singing of the story," and "the world beyond here and beside now" lends his debut novel the requisite mythical atmosphere, and an environmental jolt at the end adds relevance. One of "the tribe of tellers," Durham comes up with the occasional shot of undeniable truth ("You know how much like hope a dream can be."). And that's really all a reader can demand of an author.

Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.

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