The Seventh Moon by Marius Gabriel
(Bantam, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-09654-0
****
The Seventh Moon is a gripping, suspenseful thriller with an interesting setting. At times it is almost unbearably grim, but it's effective -- I don't think I exhaled once during the last 50 pages.

The novel begins in Hong Kong. It is 1970, and wealthy magnate Francine Lawrence is on a business trip, surveying one of her many subsidiaries. The 50-year-old Eurasian woman is shocked when she receives a call from her New York office. A young woman named Sakura Ueda has shown up there, claiming that she knew Francine long ago in Borneo. Francine's first reaction is denial, but then she forces herself to remember cataclysmic events of almost 30 years ago.

The story then flashes back to 1941 Malaysia. A young Francine Lawrence begs her British husband to accompany her and their 4-year old daughter, Ruth, to Singapore, where they hope to find refuge from the advancing Japanese troops. Rebuffed by her husband, Francine and Ruth find temporary shelter at a luxurious hotel. In the ensuing weeks, Francine and the residents of Singapore try to live a normal life even as their city is bombed regularly by the enemy and their supplies gradually dwindle. Meanwhile, Francine has to cope with racial prejudice, as the British residents barely tolerate her mixed blood. When she is ultimately evicted from the hotel, she is forced to seek the aid of Clive Napier, a young British soldier who has made no secret of the fact that he would like to be Francine's lover. Clive helps Francine and Ruth find food and shelter. When it becomes apparent that the Japanese are about to take over Singapore, the trio plan a desperate flight from the besieged city.

But their harrowing escape involves a choice that no mother should have to make. Francine survives, but Ruth is lost to her forever. She searches for her for years, but finally accepts the truth that her daughter is dead.

Or is she? Sakura, the woman who appears at her New York office in 1970, bears a slight resemblance to Ruth. She claims to have spent part of her childhood in Borneo, where Francine last saw Ruth, but she doesn't remember anything of her first four years. She is tough and rude, the survivor of a difficult past. She may be the real thing, or she may be part of an elaborate hoax, in an attempt to bilk Francine out of her fortune. But when Sakura reveals the truth about her situation, Francine realizes she has to act, whether Sakura is really her daughter or not. The answers to the puzzle will be found in far-away Laos, a country being ravaged by a war in which the United States plays a covert and less than honorable role.

Marius Gabriel is a strong writer. He makes the horrors of war come vividly alive in sweeping scenes of destruction. He makes the reader feel the desperation of the British residents of Singapore as they hold fancy balls even as other parts of the city are bombed into oblivion. Yet he also focuses on the intimate dynamics among the characters, especially between Francine and Sakura. Francine has closed herself off from her emotions for 30 years. She broke off her relationship with Clive after she abandoned her search for Ruth, and has never gotten close to anyone else. She doesn't want to believe that the troubled, angry Sakura is her daughter, because she will have to admit to an unbearable guilt for abandoning her. But when Clive reappears on the scene, and Francine agrees to help Sakura, she has to open her heart again and risk everything. Another similarly complex relationship develops between Sakura and Clay Munro, Francine's chief bodyguard.

The dark, bleak tone of The Seventh Moon was relentless, but the engaging plot kept me reading. Unfortunately, the novel's conclusion is abrupt and almost ambiguous. It is a disappointing finale to what is otherwise an exceptional reading experience. Marius Gabriel, an American who lives in Spain, deserves a wide audience.

--Susan Scribner


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