June 17, 1991 12:00 PM

by Joy Fielding

Fielding’s new mystery opens with a jolting, primeval panic. A young woman is wandering around Boston, her dress soaked with blood, money jammed into her pockets. She has no idea where—or who—she is.

The amnesia is traced to trauma, possibly caused by an accident. Conveniently, the distraught woman has landed in a hospital where her husband, a surgeon, practices. Quickly, Michael Whittaker comes to claim her.

But Jane Whittaker’s condition doesn’t improve. Sedatives given by her husband and a housekeeper he hires keep her mind fuzzy. No friends visit. All hints of her prior life seem hidden. She knows only what she is told—her mother is now dead, she had a daughter who is dead; she is known to all as a woman of irrational anger.

She is also a woman of dry wit. Listen, for example, to Jane before being found by her husband, sitting in a hotel room watching Oprah and Phil and considering her own nameless plight:

“She thought of calling the networks. I have a great idea for a show, she would tell them: Women who don’t know whether they’re battered lesbians or transvestite kleptomaniacs, who don’t know how many children they might have borne by the age of 13, who have no idea if their husbands make love to them more than twice a year. Women who don’t know who they are. Aw, forget it, she could hear the networks reply, there’s too many of those around.

“Maybe, she concurred. But how many of them have almost ten thousand dollars in their pockets and blood all over their clothes? …

“Rich, blood-spattered women who don’t know who they are!”

As if created in some hazy, prewaking state, this novel has the impact of a nightmare. It’s impossible to stop reading, and Fielding (Kiss Mommy Goodbye) pays off with a climax that is the literary equivalent of a careening screech. (Morrow, $20)

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