What is free will worth in the path of war and oppression?

Is there such a thing, and how should it be used?

Jill Paton Walsh's new novel pulls off a difficult trick -- it successfully metamorphoses from a novel of ideas into a thriller. "A Desert in Bohemia" is set primarily in a fictional central European country, and it spans the decades between the end of World War II and the fall of Communism in the late 1980's. We follow the inhabitants of a small town as they cope first with the descending Iron Curtain and then, much later, anticipate Communism's fall. Paton Walsh, who was a finalist for the Booker Prize for her novel "Knowledge of Angels," writes with grace and cunning, trapping her characters, chapter by chapter, in a web of intrigue. The book opens in 1945 when a frightened and bloodstained young woman emerges from the forest and seeks refuge in what she thinks is an abandoned castle; what she has actually stumbled upon is the ancestral home of the aristocratic Blansky family. The family has fallen on hard times, and many of its members have fled to the West. (The family's secrets are darkly hinted at; future generations will insist on breaking the silence.) Once in the house, the young woman is soon joined by others, including an idealistic young Communist, with whom she sets out to find a new, just society. The stories of these characters' lives, together with those of other residents of the town, are delicately intertwined; there are moments of brightness and joy, but betrayal and brutality are daily realities as well. Paton Walsh also brings us the lives of some of those who have fled the country, looking for a better place. Her characters frequently possess a kind of moral nobility-- they're willing to take risks for their principles, while sensing that any real happiness is illusory.

Lynn Karpen New York Times

Published September 2000 Paperback to be published September 2001