September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

by Kaye Gibbons

Beautifully crafted and intense, Kaye Gibbons’s novels are marked by an emotional authenticity that never falters. Even sophisticated readers will find themselves slipping into the fantasy that her characters are taken from life rather than being brought forth by an author whose creative vision is astonishingly original.

Sights Unseen will not disappoint those who have become addicted to Gibbons’s gracefully told tales. The story of the relationship between Maggie Barnes, a charismatic Southern beauty who suffers from manic depression, and her daughter Hattie is both moving and evocative. A well-born charmer, Maggie remains sympathetic even when her illness leads her to neglect her two children, turn her adoring husband into a kind of sex slave and go on unbridled shopping sprees. In examining her emotionally chaotic childhood, Hattie (who narrates the story as an adult) never presents Maggie as a villain, but as a woman in the thrall of a devastating and, at times, seductive illness.

Although her mother’s troubles deprive Hattie of a real childhood, she never succumbs to bitterness; instead, she is rewarded when, after a particularly destructive episode, Maggie is sent to an asylum and returns without her shattering mood swings. With the help of lithium and by “sheer dint of will,” she manages to stay sane and to become the loving mother for whom Hattie has longed.

Spare and unsentimental, Sights Unseen is an oddly inspiring novel. Gibbons makes a powerful argument that, as her narrator observes, “both forgiving and healing are true arts.” (Putnam, $19.95)

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