May 30, 1994 12:00 PM

by Jane Hamilton

Alice Goodwin has always thought that one huge mistake “or else an unfortunate accident” is what it takes for a life to cave in. Her thinking on that score, in this extraordinary story of a family’s disintegration, is confirmed one heretofore unremarkable summer day when it is her turn to baby-sit the two daughters of her best friend, Theresa.

Goodwin and her capable husband, Howard, are regarded as strangers in Prairie Center, Wis. Strangers—and strange. For one thing, the couple moved to the rockbound area a mere six years ago so that Howard could realize his lifelong dream of owning a dairy farm. For another, they once had a dreadlocked African-American as a houseguest. For yet another, “it was common knowledge in Prairie Center…that we had no business moving into a place that had been in the Earl family for three generations.”

When Alice, a bit frazzled from a breakfast tussle with her high-strung daughter Emma, steals a few minutes to be alone, Lizzy, Theresa’s 2-year-old, wanders off and drowns in the Goodwin’s pond. Subsequently, Alice, a nurse at a local elementary school, becomes a target when a deeply troubled child accuses her of sexual abuse.

A Map of the World, narrated alternately by Howard and Alice, tells a haunting story of the loss of innocence and of shame, guilt and betrayal, making it clear that home is where the hurl is. The details observed in the novel, which will be compared to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres given its subject and terrain, are astonishingly vivid and moving: “I took a deep breath and licked my lips as I rounded the bend into the vestibule,” recounts Alice of Lizzy’s funeral. “The casket was before us, the white casket with the gold trim around the edges as if it had come with a little girl’s vanity and a canopy bed set. It was the size of the box Emma’s coaster wagon had come in…Lizzy’s outfit, the silver headband in her hair with five pink roses in a row along the top—all of it made her look like a wedding cake. She would never have stood for it!”

While Hamilton does have a tendency to overwrite—in one instance she describes milk as “sustaining white liquid”—such lapses are easy to overlook in the face of her impressive achievement. Like a lot of books singled out for praise, A Map of the World can be described as a page turner. But in this case, the pages are turned with trembling hands. (Doubleday, $22)

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