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What Price Eternity?

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'My Soul to Keep' asks a question we have all pondered

By Nehanda Imara

TANANARIVE DUE'S second novel, My Soul to Keep, is a deliciously eerie story of immortality, innocence and death. This contemporary supernatural tale takes a gripping look into the depths of human nature. Heretical or visionary? Due will most certainly offend some devout born-again Christians, but haven't we all pondered what price we would pay for eternal life? She also brilliantly raises biting moral questions that confront our most sacrosanct notions and spiritual principles.

The author uses a modern setting full of characters we can identify with--as family, friends, neighbors and co-workers--to forge a believable story. The ideal life of the central character, Jessica Wolde, of Miami, Fla., is simply ordinary, and her marriage to David Wolde is a match made in heaven. They have a beautiful daughter named Kira, great jobs and a nice home. But Jessica's dream-come-true family is about to enter a hell full of lies, murder and betrayal.

From this elemental plot, Due weaves one of the most horrifying tales imaginable. The details are just enough to arouse the reader's awareness that something unspeakable must be lurking around the corner. And once that corner is turned, another door closes, raising the suspense to a crescendo.

The story is full of intricate layers, but it is not disjointed; Due maintains the connections with the hand of a skilled writer. The narrative moves back and forth in time as we learn the terrible truth about David. In the first several chapters, David is introduced as Jessica's Mr. Perfect. It's a pretty picture, but as the surrounding frame begins to take shape, things don't seem so perfect anymore. A dual character, David is both a romantic and charismatic husband, father and lover and a human monster and vicious murderer named Dawit.

Dawit's origins lie in the ancient Ethiopian city Lalibela, where, centuries ago, he sold his soul to receive the "lifeblood" that gives him immortality. Dawit vowed to keep his choice secret, but he is intoxicated with his love for Jessica and Kira and their "emotional simplicities" and betrays his sacred brotherhood for the earthly pleasures of family and marriage.

Due masterfully connects Dawit's past and present. Dawit was a slave in the 1800s; he fought in the Crusades; he knows everything knowable, yet he knows no peace or happiness. He has immortality but yearns for the mundane security of family life.

My Soul to Keep tickles and taunts our obsessions with age, youth and innocence, brilliantly teasing our mortal yearning to live forever. Due blends the mysterious spiritualism of ancient Africa with the religious transformations found in the rural black South. Dawit symbolizes more than our fear of such practices but also our hunger to know. Dawit represents that raw natural evil that society tries to keep at bay but without which there would be no conflict, no means to determine good.

Through David, Dawit's most recent identity, we are confronted with an impossible question. Are there good monsters? In spite of Dawit's evil doings, we are attracted to his humanness. The conflicting emotions create a turmoil to be hungrily savored. We are at once frightened by the demon and drawn into a divine hysteria, soothed by the sweet and safe conversations Dawit has with his daughter. We ride the waves of the story with the anticipation of a scary roller-coaster ride. We crave the excitement, the danger, the suspense and the flirtation with death.

Before you get on board for this ride, I recommend a prayer I used to say as a young girl, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." If you love a well-told yarn, My Soul to Keep will keep you going all night, each page yanking at your visceral core. Due is bold and brave in her attempt to scare us into pondering our finite and infinite possibilities.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due; HarperCollins; $24 cloth.

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro.

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