March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

by Kathryn Harrison

Searing confession or calculated sensationalism? That’s the question buzzing about this account of the devastating affair in which the author, then in her early 20s, became sexually involved for four years with her minister-father.

The controversy isn’t really about the taboo topic. After three well-received novels that plumbed the psychoerotic depths, a certain kinkiness has become Harrison’s calling card, and the actual encounters here between Dad and the daughter he left as an infant are handled nongraphically. Instead the issue is why the writer, at 36 the wife of novelist Colin Harrison and mother of two young children, recycled a story she had told in her 1991 debut novel, Thicker Than Water—only this time packaging it in exhibitionistic Oprah-ready wrap.

There’s no ignoring the similarity of the two tales. Both are dark voyages of self-discovery in which first-person narrators struggle against spectacular dysfunction: narcissistic teen mothers who move out during their daughters’ childhoods, spectral father figures, anorexia, self-mutilation and incestuous couplings less about lust than about longing and anger. But Harrison handles the raw material very differently here. Stripped of her novel’s distracting detail, The Kiss is a more assured work—and would be even without the frisson of the forbidden.

Ultimately, Harrison’s motivation is a question for her, her family and her therapist. But for readers willing to accompany her across some difficult terrain, The Kiss offers a haunting journey not easily forgotten. (Random House, $20)

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