15th November 1996 at 00:00
ACCORDION CRIMES By E Annie Proulx. Fourth Estate Pounds 16.99. ALIAS GRACE By Margaret Atwood. Bloomsbury Pounds 16.99. REALITY AND DREAMS By Muriel Spark. Constable Pounds 14.95

Perhaps music cures crime, one of E Annie Proulx's characters says, but her extraordinary new novel is much less optimistic. This epic story is full of music, but it's full of crimes as well. The music belongs to a century of immigrants who gradually lose the words and rhythms of their homeland in the corrupting melting pot that is America, and the crimes are the poverty, hatred, lust and violence that surround them.

For Proulx, the making of America is a saga of destruction. There is an unspoken parallel between the hundreds of lives she re-creates and the beautiful Appaloosa horses whose degradation a drunk Irish ranch hand laments - stolen from Indians or bought for rum and bibles, then crossed "with anything with four legs and a mane until they're down-bred to dogmeat."

The green two-row button accordion of the title, made by a Sicilian who travels steerage to "La Merica", only to be lynched by a racist mob in New Orleans, is the device that links the separate stories. It falls in turn into the hands of a Mississippi African, mid-west German farmers, Mexicans in Texas, Cajuns on the coast of Maine, Polacks in Chicago. For all of them it sings the music of oppression, and all of them live casually brutal lives and die brutal, often macabre deaths. In the end, toneless and battered, it is bought for a dollar by Norwegian Minnesotans and given casually to a teenage niece who has had both arms sliced off by gale-driven metal roofing.

There's artifice as well as art in this narrative device, as there is in the extraordinary precision with which Proulx catalogues the domestic detail and labours of the cast of characters she has assembled. In the end,perhaps, the artifice palls, but the music lingers on.

Margaret Atwood's novel is about a particular emigrant and a particular crime, both in their time notorious, but her story of 19th century Canada is enigmatic.

At its centre is Grace Marks, an Irish maid servant who in 1843, not yet 16, was sentenced to hang for her assumed complicity in the murder of her employer in Richmond Hill, Toronto. Her plea of amnesia saw the sentence commuted to imprisonment for life: when we meet her, it's in the penitentiary, after 15 years in the asylum and the prison cell. To some, she is still an object of lubricious fascination; to others, she is an innocent to be reprieved. To newly qualified Dr Simon Jordan she is a perfect example of those traumas of the mind in which he plans to make his reputation, and it is through the memories that she recalls "to please him" that we learn the details of her story.

But are they true? We guess not, but we have no means of knowing. Grace is something more than herself, in Atwood's deceptively straightforward tale: a surrogate perhaps for the sins of the tight-laced society outside that thrills in judgment on her. Perhaps her real crime, she slyly hints, is just that she's a woman. A beautifully crafted, evocative novel.

The line between reality and dreams is one that Tom Richards, the richly married and self-indulgent film director in Muriel Spark's new novel, finds it quite impossible to draw. "To us dreams are reality and reality is dreams, " he tells his on-set crew, and then goes to bed as is his habit with his current leading lady. Off-set, he specialises in the wives of redundant men. Soon, you think, he'll tumble from his perch.

But in Spark nothing is as you expect it and it's the discarded Jeanne who crashes to the concrete from the boom of the filming crane. Short and sweet - not quite vintage Spark, perhaps, but wry, spare and blackly funny.

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