A relationship that could seem profoundly unfair blossoms into a revelation of love and magic.

BOX HILL

A STORY OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM

In a cruisy, pastoral spot, a young, inexperienced gay man trips over the “long and insolently extended” legs of a mysterious older gay man and falls, quite literally, into a new life.

It’s 1975, south of London, and clumsy, pudgy Colin is turning 18 on a Sunday, the day the bikers hang out at Box Hill in Surrey. Colin is so self-conscious about his weight and looks that he doesn’t understand that sexy, 6-foot-5 Ray—after an initial bit of sex in the fields near the pub where the bikers congregate—is taking possession of him by moving him into his home and controlling almost every aspect of his life. But that control is something Colin yearns for. Told by Colin years after the relationship has ended, Mars-Jones’ trim, poignant novel humanizes the intricacies of a dominant-submissive gay relationship. “If there are to be leaders then there must be followers, and I had followership skills in plenty,” Colin confides. Some aspects of their six years together are shocking: Colin learns to prefer sleeping on the floor and doesn’t ever learn Ray’s last name, occupation, or birthday. Since the novel is narrated by Colin, and since Colin loves the mystery of being with Ray, the potential pitfall here is that the mystery man will remain a cipher to readers. But Mars-Jones uncovers revealing details about Ray, like the fact that although he always heads up the motorcade of bikers, he’s not all cocky swagger; he’s a real stickler for speed limits and is courteous to pedestrians. Their relationship may end in tragedy, but it’s a joy to learn that Colin conquers the pejorative assessment in the novel’s subtitle, A Story of Low Self-Esteem.

A relationship that could seem profoundly unfair blossoms into a revelation of love and magic.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8112-3005-6

Page Count: 112

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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