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Karen Palmer weaves a luminous tale of redemption in her debut novel.

By Merrik Bush

JANUARY 20, 1998: 

All Saints, by Karen Palmer (Soho Press). Cloth, $24.

THE UNCERTAIN PATHS of three lost souls converge in 1950s New Orleans on the eve of All Saints Day in Karen Palmer's emotionally haunting debut novel. Palmer moves between three compelling lives, outlining a rich tapestry of minor characters and events that irrevocably weave her central protagonists closer together.

Her story begins with Harlan Desonnier, a twentysomething ex-con from a wealthy farming family. After serving eight years for accidentally killing his wife in a fight over who fathered their infant daughter, Desonnier battles the demons of this murderous deception, and his recent past as the love object of the prison bully, who, in exchange for companionship, protects the petite Cajun during his internment.

Wracked with guilt, shame and a sense of foreboding about a past he's not ready to face, Desonnier flees toward New Orleans, in search of solace and divine forgiveness. There he crosses paths with Father Frank, a priest who once visited him in jail and whose address is inked upon Dessonier's hand. But Frank, suffering a loss of faith, has since banished himself to a seedy flophouse where he consorts with the crass mistress of a nearby whorehouse--an old French woman with a flair for the mystical. A violent twist of fate sets Frank on an obsessive mission to save a stranger, and ultimately, himself. This search leads him through the heart of the black community, to Desonnier, and finally, a more urgent Baptist religion.

Prior to this intersection, however, Dessonier lands in Mercy Hospital. This is our introduction to blonde, blue-eyed nurse Glory Wiltz, the third protagonist in this winding tale. Desonnier perceives Wiltz as a potential savior, little knowing she believes herself to be a fallen angel. A transplant from California, Wiltz has just left her black musician husband for fear that an interracial marriage in the South would ultimately destroy them and their 3-year-old son.

With a subtle, elegant style, Palmer slowly reveals the damaging pasts of her characters as they move toward indeterminate, intersecting futures. Though their histories and personalities remain disappointingly elusive at times, she potently conveys the depths of their anguish with stark, evocative lyricism. Spartan character development has worked beautifully for authors like Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor, whose empathic style is powerfully moving.

For Palmer, too, the effort pays off in the majority of All Saints, though its integrity suffers at times--particularly during the few romantic scenes between Dessonnier and Wiltz. Though the author aims for authenticity, her own discomfort is palpable, and she quickly exits these brief scenes of emotional synchronicity with an almost audible sigh.

Palmer is at her best when her characters are in conflict: with themselves, each other, and their narrowly defined worlds. As the story progresses, Desonnier, Frank and Wiltz come together explosively on a single quest that ultimately serves each of their purposes and brings them face to face with their torment in unexpected and powerful ways.

Palmer's Achilles heel is her evocation of time. Though she conveys a lush, sensual New Orleans setting, her characters could just as easily be tripping through modern-day Louisiana. The burden is on the reader to remember the setting is the segregated '50s, and often it just doesn't sell.

But all in all, Saints is an engaging, well-written and intelligent first novel that ultimately honors the redemptive power of love, sacrifice and forgiveness in the face of ghosts from the past.

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