THE HIDE by Barry Unsworth (W.W. Norton: $22, 192 pp.) Barry Unsworth, who won the Booker Prize for his novel "Sacred Hunger," has it all: imagination, character, dialogue and above all, plot. He tells the story loaded with meaning without lecturing. His characters are complete without being finished, not cardboard facets of their author's personality. When his characters speak, move and think, readers learn everything we need to know about where they come from, what they want and what they will do to get what they want.

Josh, a Huck Finn-style diamond in the rough, works in a game booth at a fair. In the next booth is Mortimer, who has a big vocabulary, some Socialist ideas that really add up to injured pride and a vast knowledge of women and what he sees as their sleazy ways. He's a good friend to Josh, who looks up to him (if too rarely over him), but he has a vast cruel streak.

Josh leaves the fair to take a job as a gardener for a lonely older woman, who sets about trying to seduce him almost immediately. He falls for her young ward, Marion, dutifully reporting his sexual progress to Mortimer, who, in his efforts to remove all traces of innocence from his friend, manipulates a horrifying betrayal. All this is observed by Josh's employer and her creepy brother Simon, who has spent several years creating a tunnel, "the Hide," from which he can watch the comings and goings in his ever-expanding universe. It's a scary book, written by a master tale-teller.

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