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The New York Times Sunday Book Review: "Weldon's sly wit . . . is considerable."

Date: Oct 28 2013

Metafiction is often more fun to write than it is to read. Everything on the page is the result of a series of strenuous choices, none inevitable, and reminding the reader just who made these choices (whether conscious or not) can be amusing, aesthetically useful and a great relief from the constraints of the traditional conventions of fiction. But intelligent readers may not need reminding, may even take it as an insult. They know who the puppets are and who the puppeteer. They have sought out fiction for a reason: quite often they simply wish the puppeteer would shut up, back away and get on with the storytelling.

The metafiction of Fay Weldon ­manages to charm even as it exasperates. In her latest novel, “Kehua!,” two stories, one fictional and one sort of not, run alongside each other at the same pace. “Real” and “invented” characters leap from stream to stream, and reminders abound. “Novels,” we are informed, “can no longer sit on shelves and pretend to be reality; they are not, they are inventions, suspensions of reality and must declare themselves as such.” Then again, we are told this by the narrator, who is not, strictly speaking, Fay Weldon.

In Weldon’s 34th novel, the narrator (“Your writer,” who has also written 34 novels but is, unlike Weldon, married to a man named Rex) daily descends to her damp basement, where she hunches over her laptop and fitfully contrives the tale of several generations of women, their fathers, lovers, husbands, hangers-on and dogs. If there’s a central character, it’s Beverley, the grandmother, who nudges the plot in motion when her granddaughter, Scarlet, announces that she’s going to leave her common-law husband. “Are you running to someone,” she asks, “or just running in general?” It turns out that the women in this family are always running.

They run from slaughter, incest and the consequences of their own poor choices, and they don’t run alone. As a toddler, Beverley runs from her blood-splashed home in Coromandel, New Zealand, eventually arriving in London, but all the way she is accompanied by kehua, “Maori spirits of the wandering dead, adrift from their ancestral home,” whose function is to guide their charges back to their “spiritual habitation,” attempting to restore the tribe. Often misdiagnosed as migraine auras, they hang upside down in clusters like translucent fruit bats, and when excited their flapping is quite audible.

Beverley knows about kehua but mistakenly believes she left them behind in the Antipodes. The narrator knows better: they inhabit her own basement, and in her emerging novel they multiply and attach themselves to Beverley’s descendants, fretting, nattering and nudging characters and plot this way and that. Kehua are devoted to family ties. They aren’t very bright, but they try. They’re “spiritual sheepdogs,” “servants of the bloodline,” and their behavior is goofy and kind of endearing. They tie characters to plot and both to their purported author. Kehua keep the novel — and its women — running. As “your writer” realizes halfway through the book, kehua are actually “a metaphor for generational family dysfunction.”

Readers unentranced by antic myths and immune to the lure of the meta will have to settle for Weldon’s sly wit, which is considerable. Louis, the melancholy, abandoned common-law husband, who runs a business called MetaFashion, is described as “the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turned him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds.” Of course he lives in an uninhabitable house designed by a brutalist Bauhaus architect. Scarlet runs off, in part, because she’s sick of bedding down in a ladder-­accessible alcove scooped out of a concrete wall.

Weldon’s kehua, encountering some of the spirit creatures of the Old World — Cwn Annwn, the Welsh hounds of death, and “the watery Northern kelpies” — end up becoming globalized, just like the rest of us, which may or may not be a good thing.

Like the real world, “Kehua!” is overpopulated and messy, but much ­funnier.

-Jincy Willett