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Wessex Tales
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Hardy tests the skill of any narrator. Not only must the reader dramatize differences of age, sex, region, and class among the characters who inhabit the fictional county of Wessex in the last century, but the straight narration must also showcase the eloquence of Hardy's prose. Vincent Brimble manages all this with ease. Which is fortunate, since the seven uneven tales here might seem downright dull in print. The first and best piece, "The Three Strangers," pulls out all the stops: a violent storm on the downs, three mysterious strangers who seek shelter in a shepherd's cabin where a rousing christening party is in progress, and the booming of a cannon to announce the escape of a prisoner nearby. In other stories (e.g., "Fellow Townsmen") the characters seem wooden, with plots turning too much on coincidence. Woven through all, however, are lively descriptions of life in Somerset 50 years or so before Hardy's time: accounts of milking cows all day in a dark dairy ("The Withered Arm"), smuggling tubs of brandy over the cliffs ("The Distracted Preacher"), and preparing for the anticipated invasion of Napoleon ("A Tradition of 1804"). Recommended for classic literature collections.-Jo Carr, Sarasota, Fla.

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