THE CONVERSION

First published in 1991, this provocative parable is the 12th novel to reach English from the internationally acclaimed author of such fiction as Badenheim 1939 (1980) and (most recently) The Iron Tracks (1998). Protagonist Karl HÅbner is an Austrian Jew who has, with his mother’s blessing, converted to Christianity in order to facilitate his advancement as a municipal official employed by the city of Neufeld. No sooner has Karl accepted congratulations at his “conversion ceremony,” though, than nagging reminders of his late parents and of his religious heritage begin to shake his resolve to settle smoothly into his chosen new life. His oldest friend, an earlier convert, exemplifies embittered unfulfillment. His “scandalous” Aunt Franzi, a former cabaret singer and actress—and a forthright “proud Jew and . . . woman of principle”—dies suddenly, a visit to her provincial hometown tellingly evoking Karl’s untroubled childhood. And, crucially, his memories of Gloria, the housemaid who nursed his parents during the last illness of each, compel him to seek her out. His reunion with Gloria, and his chastened gratitude for her devotion to his loved ones (“She had absorbed their lives fully while he was merely a drifter in their world”), unite the two and show Karl a pathway back to his origins when an injustice orchestrated by the government he serves (the abolition of his city’s Jewish market area) forces him to abandon the position he had coveted and won. He and Gloria return to the Ruthenian mountains to live simply, but they can—t escape the fate to which Karl had believed himself immune. Their story’s conclusion is swift, impersonal, and devastating. The weakness of The Conversion is its tendency toward dogmatic allegory (at times we suspect Appelfeld is jury-rigging a thinly fictionalized argument against assimilation into other cultures as opposed to accepting one’s native ethnicity). But its signal strength—his complex portrayal of a divided soul frustrated in its pursuit of goodness—once again confirms Appelfeld’s position as matchless dramatist of the intermingled burdens and rewards of Jewry in extremis.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 1998

ISBN: 0-8052-4153-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Schocken

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

more