Lecherous Sea Monster, Lustful Hippogriff Enliven Hoban Fantasy

The cover jacket of "Angelica Lost and Found" by Russell Hoban. Source: Bloomsbury via Bloomberg

Pity Volatore, the hippogriff.

For some 500 years, he has been trapped in a supporting role in the Italian epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” where he provides winged transport for the guy who saves pagan princess Angelica from a lecherous sea monster. Little did we know that the hippogriff himself had the hots for the naked damsel in distress.

As Russell Hoban’s novel “Angelica Lost and Found” opens, Volatore has been pining away in a 16th-century painting of the drama attributed to Girolamo da Carpi. Breaking free, he escapes a museum in El Paso, Texas, and makes his way to San Francisco. The year is 2008 and he’s about to meet Angelica Greenberg, a 30-year-old gallery owner and reincarnation of his beloved.

Though Angelica seems unfazed by his beak and talons, Volatore must struggle to convince her that he’s a long-term romantic prospect. She is, after all, certain that he’s a figment of her imagination.

Hoban often tilts toward fantasy and sci-fi. So it comes as no surprise when Volatore makes his case by flitting between borrowed human forms, his own musky animal body and a persistent memory that drives Angelica from one shrink to another.

The narrative moves seamlessly from perspective to perspective as Hoban’s shape-shifting hero becomes an autistic savant painter, a drunken Russian accountant and a psychiatrist. The novel’s tone is equally protean, encompassing the bawdy, the whimsical, and the downright postmodern. It all adds up to a curiously convincing and intricate tale of the power of art.

“Angelica Lost and Found” is from Bloomsbury (237 pages, 12.99 pounds).

Melancholy Toibin

Muted melancholy is the dominant mood in “The Empty Family,” Colm Toibin’s rewarding if uneven collection of short stories. Nine in all, they unfold in Ireland, Spain and America, where the protagonists ponder past relationships in hotel rooms, rented apartments and houses awaiting furniture.

In “One Minus One,” an academic looks up at a Texan moon and thinks back on events six years before, when he flew home to Ireland to witness his mother’s last days. His regret at her passing is mixed with guilty relief: Though their relationship ruptured when he was too young to prevent it, he kept his distance in adulthood.

“Some of our loves and attachments are elemental and beyond our choosing, and for that very reason come spiced with pain and regret and need and hollowness,” he now reflects.

Blunt Force

What gives the best of these stories their blunt force is Toibin’s acknowledgement that, while these dramas may not be of “our choosing,” we are nonetheless complicit. That theme echoes in the title story -- also addressed to a lost love by a man who has returned to Ireland from America -- and in a similar journey undertaken by Frances, a movie set dresser, in “Two Women.”

Much in Ireland has changed -- and changed again with the financial crisis -- since these characters left. The Catholic Church itself has been shaken. “The Pearl Fishers” charts the country’s altered religious landscape following revelations about priests who sexually abused children.

Other stories in this collection are more like squibs. One riffs on Toibin’s obsession with Henry James, another pivots on some blushingly bad gay erotica.

Though it’s a bumpy read when consumed cover to cover, “The Empty Family” yields ample insight to make it worthwhile.

It’s from Viking in the U.K. and will be published by Scribner in the U.S. this January (214 pages, 17.99 pounds, $24).

Missing Dickens

New Zealander Lloyd Jones made his international name with “Mister Pip,” the tale of a white recluse on a war-torn island who teaches village children about “Great Expectations.” Readers will miss the influence of Charles Dickens in his first novel since, “Hand Me Down World.”

This is the story of an African beauty queen who gets a job in a Tunisian hotel and is seduced by a mixed-race German guest. When he gets her pregnant and returns for the baby’s birth, she assumes he’ll take her back to Berlin. He instead takes only the baby, to be raised by the wife he had all along.

The first three sections of the novel are told through the voices of people who help and abuse the mother as she sets out to reclaim her child. Only in the fourth part do we hear from the woman herself. Her traumatized voice is the most distinctive in the book -- an arresting blend of the maternal and the ruthless. By then, Jones has plopped a murder mystery into the plot.

For all its readability, this novel turns a potent and potentially harrowing storyline into perky book-group fodder.

“Hand Me Down World” is from John Murray (313 pages, 14.99 pounds).

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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