Not an easy read but a compelling exploration of how memory shapes and is shaped by individuals and society.

THE WORLD BEFORE US

Hunter’s haunting—if sometimes elusive—second novel (Stay, 2005) wavers between practical life in the present and the unplumbed memories of a British archivist and her long-dead research subjects.

Twenty years ago, 15-year-old Jane was babysitting Lily when the 5-year-old went missing in some English woodland between the Whitmore, an abandoned Victorian mental asylum, and Inglewood House, the former estate of 19th-century plant hunter George Farrington. Now Jane is an archivist at the Chester Museum in London, founded in 1868 by Edmund Chester, whose wife, Charlotte, hinted in her diary of a romantic attachment with George’s brother Norvill Farrington. Jane has never truly recovered from Lily’s unsolved disappearance, guilt tangling with her confused adolescent attraction toward Lily’s widowed father, William. When she hears William speak at the Chester about his new book concerning George Farrington, unresolved feelings well up, and Jane runs away to revisit the site of Lily’s disappearance. She is not alone: A chorus of stranded souls follows her. Having found Jane while she was researching the Whitmore logbook for her graduate school dissertation years ago, they hope she will lead them to remember their lives and especially deaths. In those logbooks, Jane stumbled across another disappearance in the area a hundred years before Lily’s: a woman identified only as N. Having Jane try to solve the two unconnected disappearances, the author transforms Jane the archivist into Jane the detective. But like other fictional detectives, and despite her sizzling romance with an inappropriately young gardener, Jane is never as interesting as those she unwittingly investigates—a host of spirits with unresolved deaths who share stories heartbreaking in their complicated humanness, from the farmer who’s more bird than man to the barely closeted schoolmaster to the lawyer blaming himself for his infant’s death to Norvill Farrington, whose desperate love for the ambivalent Charlotte causes disaster.

Not an easy read but a compelling exploration of how memory shapes and is shaped by individuals and society.

Pub Date: March 31, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-41852-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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