Sensitively observed, elegantly written snapshots of the human condition, unsparing yet tender.




Connecting with other people is the only thing harder than being alone in this piercing collection from gifted Scottish novelist Kennedy (Day, 2007, etc.).

The complex, often agonizing negotiations of marriage are the subject of several fine stories. “What Becomes,” an internal monologue by a man sitting in a movie theater, unreels memories of his bizarre behavior after he cuts himself in the kitchen and his wife’s despairing response; they’ve lost a daughter, we gradually realize, and are painfully estranged in their separate mourning. The infestation in “Wasps” illustrates a traveling businessman’s insouciance in the face of his wife’s sorrow over his infidelities and his sons’ grief over his absences. Male violence roils “Marriage,” a creepy monologue by an abusive husband, and “Saturday Teatime,” narrated by a woman unable to suppress childhood memories of laughing hysterically at an afternoon TV show so that her friend wouldn’t hear the sounds of her father beating her mother. Yet troubled spouses can sustain each other as well, like the couple in “Confectioner’s Gold” dealing with bankruptcy in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. The longing for companionship suffuses many tales, notably the risky but triumphant “Sympathy,” which portrays a one-night stand with graphic sexual frankness that illuminates the protagonists’ loneliness and sadness. The widow of a popular but nasty children’s entertainer finally gets a good man in “Another,” though it’s more than a little weird that he’s a performer hired to replicate her dead husband’s signature character, Uncle Shaun. Happiness is neither easily achieved nor unmixed in Kennedy’s stories, but she’s compassionate toward even her most damaged creations, aware that we find pleasure where we can. The rowdy amputees at a public pool in “As God Made Us” and the oddballs waiting around a stage door for the magician they idolize in “Vanish” find it in camaraderie with fellow misfits: “They’re all going nowhere. Together.”

Sensitively observed, elegantly written snapshots of the human condition, unsparing yet tender.

Pub Date: April 8, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-307-27354-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.


Thoughts on travel as an existential adventure from one of Poland’s most lauded and popular authors.

Already a huge commercial and critical success in her native country, Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night, 2003) captured the attention of Anglophone readers when this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. In addition to being a fiction writer, Tokarczuk is also an essayist and a psychologist and an activist known—and sometimes reviled—for her cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist views. Her wide-ranging interests are evident in this volume. It’s not a novel exactly. It’s not even a collection of intertwined short stories, although there are longer sections featuring recurring characters and well-developed narratives. Overall, though, this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel—through space and also through time—and a thoughtful, ironic voice. Movement from one place to another, from one thought to another, defines both the preoccupations of this discursive text and its style. One of the extended stories follows a man named Kunicki whose wife and child disappear on vacation—and suddenly reappear. A first-person narrator offers a sort of memoir through movement, recalling her own peregrinations bit by bit. There are pilgrims and holidaymakers. Tokarczuk also explores the connection between travel and colonialism with side trips into “exotic” practices and cabinets of curiosity. There are philosophical digressions, like a meditation on the flight from Irkutsk to Moscow that lands at the same time it takes off. None of this is to say that this book is dry or didactic. Tokarczuk has a sly sense of humor. It’s impossible not to laugh at the opening line, “I’m reminded of something that Borges was once reminded of….” Of course someone interested in maps and territories, of the emotional landscape of travel and the difference between memory and reality would feel an affinity for the Argentine fabulist.

A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-53419-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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