IN THE FACE of such disasters as mass starvation, how are we to take our own desires, concerns, and tribulations seriously? This is a question most have asked but few have answered, except by setting it aside. But what happens when the question won't go away?
This is the case for Lois, one of two main characters in Roberta Morris's novel No Words for Love and Famine (Cormorant, 154 pages, $13.9 5 paper) Assigned to write the text to accompany photographs of the famine in Eritrea, Lois finds the task overwhelming. The most natural response to such horrors is silence but, in the words of Susan Sontag, who is quoted in the novel, "only that which narrates can make us understand"; and this, it seems, is both Lois's and Morris's ultimate objective.
The form of the narrative is a dialogue between Lois and jean-Philippe, a poet and translator, presented first in letters and later (when they share an apartment) in conversations. It may be that "there are no metaphors for famine, or love, birth or death," as Lois claims, but these things can certainly become metaphors for other human conditions and even - despite her assertion - for each other. The triumph of this book is twofold. First, Morris displays a deft ability to weave idea and metaphor into an intricate pattern; for example, the characters physically grow or diminish according to the extent to which they are nourished or starved in their relationships. And second, she manages to pull it all off without trivializing (we do take her characters' concerns seriously against a backdrop of world famine). No Words for Love and Famine is a very fine piece of fiction that revels in the joys of language.