July 29, 1985 12:00 PM

by Marguerite Duras

Only someone French could write such sensual fiction—a roman voluptueux. The narrator is a woman who recalls growing up in Indochina before World War II. Her mother is headmistress of a school. Her older brother is a gambler and layabout; her other brother dies. The narrator is only 15 when she purposely begins an affair with the son of a much older, rich Chinese real estate dealer. He is utterly smitten by her, and she likes the feeling of power and control his obsession gives her. Duras, known in this country because of her screenplay for Hiroshima, MOD Amour, works unchronologically in brief, intensely realized, disjointed sections. The descriptions are intriguing—every word counts. Here is one character: “She’s dressed in old European clothes, scraps of brocade, out-of-date old suits, old curtains, old oddments, old models, moth-eaten old fox furs, old otterskins, that’s her kind of beauty, tattered, chilly, plaintive and in exile, nothing suits her, everything’s too big, and yet it looks marvelous.” The steaming atmosphere of the Mekong delta and that of the Chinese part of Saigon come remarkably alive. The love affair, of course, is doomed—they always are in romantic French novels like this one. But the book is a pleasure to read, and even in translation the language is elegant. There are remarkable sentences that surprise and stick in the mind. One of them ends a paragraph about a stopover in India: “Along the Ganges the lepers laugh.” (Pantheon, $11.95)

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