October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

by Heidi Julavits

It’s 1934 and the Great Depression has taken hold. So has Bena Jonssen’s emotional meltdown. She is driving with a sickly infant and philandering doctor husband to his new job in Pueblo, Colo., where she hopes they “can fix their tinny marriage.” So begins Julavits’s haunting and evocative debut novel. Even before the Jonssens reach their destination, the author hints at the darkness ahead as Bena enjoys a chance encounter with the marauding Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), who bums a smoke and an aspirin. Though florid in spots, Julavits has perfect pitch when it comes to capturing Bena’s bafflement and dislocation: Her Pueblo is a pitiless place of droughts, dust storms and evil secrets. (It’s also home to the Mineral Palace, a local landmark and relic of the town’s former wealth—and the site of Bena’s stunning final act.) That Bena is both unforgettable and forgivable is a testament to Julavits’s talent. (Putnam, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Richly conceived tale

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