MRS. RANDALL by Christopher T. Leland (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95, 234 pp.). This faintly Southern Gothic novel, focused on the semi-mysterious title figure (stepmother to the narrator of the book), starts out compelling in its use of sensuous, archaic prose and careful layering of multiple time-frames.

But expectations are deceived.

The startling events of an absorbing, sometimes harrowing central story remain insistently separate, bracketed though they are by a prologue and epilogue equally charged with strange and passionate occurrences in other times and places. There is a coolness and calculated curve to Leland's writing, alternately Jamesian and Faulknerian in mood, that in time work against it.

Despite some elegant passages, its veneer, like the genteelness of the Southern milieu that it describes, eventually begins to peel, revealing itself more artificial than artful. The style is ingrown, an end in itself, and the complexity of the interlocking stories enigmatic more for the sheer sake of enigma than the pursuit of truth.

Character delineation is Leland's major weakness. His protagonists remain stubbornly featureless and his subsidiary characters interchangeably flat. While there is clearly talent in the writer, his fatal fascination is more with the decorous concatenation of words than with striking at a real thought or emotion.

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