Do not judge this book by its dull, arty cover. Do not be put off by the oh-so-literary title (what were they thinking--the author, his editor, his publisher?). Go directly to the first page of Elliot Perlman's debut novel, "Seven Types of Ambiguity," and start reading. Within a chapter or so, you're bound to relax, happy in the knowledge that while this novel has been packaged as an ambitious literary event, it is, far more importantly, a page turner, a psychological thriller that is, in short, dangerous, beguiling fun.

The central event in Perlman's novel--already an acclaimed best seller in his native Australia--is the kidnapping of a 6-year-old boy. Simon and Anna were college sweethearts. Ten years later, Anna is married to Joe, a stock-broker, and the mother of Sam, the 6-year-old. Simon is now an ex-schoolteacher with a drinking problem. And still nursing a passion for Anna. Then, abruptly, in an act that is, he admits, "crazy every way you could think to look at it, except the way I looked at it just long enough to do it," he kidnaps Sam. Everything flows from that moment.

To tell this story, Perlman divvies up the narrative chores "Rashomon" style. Simon's psychiatrist kicks things off with a monologue. Addressing Anna, he begs her help for Simon, who's now in jail. Then Anna's husband tells his version, then Simon and Anna, and so on through seven narrators. Some things become clearer, others more opaque, but always the mystery deepens.

Perlman's novel borrows its title from William Empson's "Seven Types of Ambiguity," a landmark of literary criticism that explores how language can serve more than one purpose at once. Perlman adapts the conceit to create a reality that grows richer with each telling. But the final result has less to do with Empson than with Jean Renoir's comment in his film "The Rules of the Game": "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons." Is this a tragicomedy, a potboiler or a finely layered literary novel? Sometimes it's all three. Yes, sometimes it's just an ambitious mess--particularly when Perlman tries to be novelist, philosopher and social critic all in one. But don't be scared away. Even Perlman's mistakes are fascinating.

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