May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

By Kathryn Harrison

Anchorage, 1915. Winter nights can last 20 hours and the general store accepts payment in gold (flake and nugget). A government weather researcher, 26-year-old Bigelow, “records ephemera” with the huge box kite he builds to gather atmospheric data.

Socially those nights seem even longer until Bigelow glimpses a Native woman known only as the Aleut. She doesn’t speak, or can’t. Bigelow follows her home and insinuates himself into her routine and her bed. Months later he arrives at her house and finds it empty, with no explanation. Other women merely underscore “his enslavement to a person who has gone, left, disappeared.”

This odd, mesmerizing tale is dizzying in intensity; its startling story twists are borne along by prose as austere and powerful as Alaska’s icescape. The novel’s undertow of anguish will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of desire. (Random House, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Chilled to perfection

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