OUTSIDE VALENTINE, by Liz Ward, Henry Holt, 301 pages, $23.

We are all human, even teenagers who go on killing sprees. Parents who abandon their children are human, too, whether they abandon them physically or merely emotionally.

Humanness is Liza Ward's theme in a fascinating new book, "Outside Valentine."

The novel is based on the story of Ward's own family. Her grandparents actually were murdered by teenagers on a spree. Her father, who was just a boy at the time, was away at boarding school.

As an adult, Ward's father never wanted to talk about his parents' death. But his daughter wanted to know all about it, and to write about it from every possible angle.

The book begins in three decades at once. It begins in 1991, with a grown man asleep and dreaming that a minister has come to tell him his parents are dead. And yet, somehow, in his dream, his mother is still alive and calling to him. He gets up: "I wandered down the hall through the pale dawn light, a grown man in pajamas searching for his mother's voice."

The book begins in 1957, too, with a 14-year-old girl who is only half asleep, lying in a bed somewhere, trying to make sense of her past: I do not call these dreams because dreams are something you wish to have happened. Everyone knows I never wished any of it. It was not my fault. From the very beginning it was never my fault, not even the skipping of school. People act a certain way when they are treated wrong, and I had already done eighth grade. It was wrong of Roe to try to send me back. . . . The first day I saw Charlie with his .22 in his hand, there was a whisper of the way things would go.

And the book begins in 1962, with another teenage girl who is intrigued by a murder that took place in her neighborhood a few years before. She is obsessed by the boy who was left orphaned.

She is also obsessed with the fear that her mother is going to leave her. So she spies on the neighbor boy and she spies on her mother.

I went over to my mother's nightstand and opened a drawer. There was an eyemask to keep out the sunlight. . . . At her vanity table, I rummaged around in her makeup drawer, through little pots of pink paint that said Chanel on the lid. . . . I took out her engagement ring and put it on... I looked deep into the diamond sitting like a sparkling eye in a delicate square of black enamel. Sometimes it felt like my mother's heart was a diamond. Glittering and hard, meant to be admired.

Ward writes from the inside of each of her characters. They are limited, emotionally limited, and yet she writes of them with compassion.

She also constructs the plot nicely. It is an especially good touch to start off with the dreams. As a story in three different eras, it would have been possible to confuse the reader. Instead, the mood is dreamlike from the first, and so time is elastic. The reader is prepared for a story that folds back on itself and is told from various angles and perspectives.

Recently Ward had a short story selected for the 2004 O. Henry Prize collection. The honor will not be surprising to anyone who has read "Outside Valentine." Ward's skill is obvious. In this novel she tells a terrible story with amazing tenderness.


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