BOOK REVIEW : Artistic Sense Infuses a Rich Character Study : A CLOUD ON SAND by Gabriella De Ferrari , Knopf $19.95, 323 pages

Born in Peru to Italian parents and educated in the United States, Gabriella De Ferrari has written her first novel in her third language. Though trained as a diplomat, she became director of Boston's Museum of Contemporary Art, then curator of the renowned Fogg Museum. All three national cultures and both professional disciplines figure significantly in "A Cloud on Sand," which begins in a small Italian coastal village, moves on to a provincial South American city with a sizeable Italian population, and is suffused throughout with an artistic sensibility to landscape, color and form.

The fact that the book is written in the English taught to an adult instead of the language naturally acquired by a child lends the prose a formal and somewhat dated quality perfectly suited to a story set abroad in the period from 1920 to the end of World War II. There's a lushness here, a sense of hyper-reality and an expansiveness of character that contrasts strongly with our contemporary home-grown pragmatism. The frame of reference is never taken for granted, but generously supplied by a variety of sensory images, so that the reader not only visualizes the exotic settings, but perceives the particular sounds, tastes and textures. At first the structure seems somewhat arbitrary and obscure. A woman named Marta, unidentified until the end of the novel, is asking questions of Antonia, eliciting the detailed answers that become the novel proper. After a brief prologue that takes place on a ship leaving Buenos Aires for the fictional town of Pica, in the country of Yayaku adjoining Chile, we're transported back to Antonia's girlhood in a small fishing village on the Italian Riviera.

The time is the 1930s, and Artemisia is generally by-passed by foreign travelers eager to get from Genoa to Florence. Artemisia has few attractions, though it does boast a grand white stone villa set squarely in the midst of the crumbling medieval streets. This is Antonia's home, built as her father's capitulation to the wishes of her mother, Dora. After their wedding, Antonia's father had taken his capricious peasant bride to Argentina, where he was one of the newly prosperous Italian settlers. After one look at Buenos Aires, Dora refused to disembark, returning to Italy on the boat that brought her. Bowing to her indomitable will, her husband built the grand villa in Artemisia, visiting his family twice a year. In his long absences, Dora conducted herself as a single woman, taking a succession of casual lovers but soon settling upon the gentle and devoted Count Mora. He would be her protector for the rest of her days, acting in loco parentis for Antonia and her brother Marco, mitigating Dora's often baleful influence upon the children.

In turn, Antonia falls in love and marries an Italian businessman living in Yayaku. Her character strengthened by the count's lofty ethical principles, Antonia remains in the remote outpost in which she finds herself, though she is still enough her mother's daughter to insist on living according to her own instincts and desires, not caring if she outrages Pica's tightly-knit and conservative Italian community. She becomes a strong and capable woman, a wife perhaps more adored than adoring, but essentially content with her extraordinary existence.

De Ferrari gives us a spacious gallery of domestic interiors and landscape studies, re-creating the curious atmosphere of a European colony two continents away from its source; trapped in a time warp even more alienating than mere geographical distance. Against these rich, dense backgrounds, her characters grow in strength and vitality, welcoming us into a mysterious, vanished world.

Next: "Springs of Living Water" by Karen Lawrence (Villard Books).

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