There’s an appealing freshness to Spence’s writing; too bad he gives up on credible plotting and characterization.

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Death is everywhere in this odd novel, a coming-of-age story that dissolves into notes from a funeral business. First US publication for the Scottish Spence.

Neil McGraw is a lad in Glasgow, an only child, the son of a dour undertaker permanently embittered by his wife’s death during childbirth. Whenever the boy misbehaves, he’s locked in the basement among the coffins, so it’s not surprising he asks every body: What happens when you die? Against his will, he finds himself learning the trade. This is less gloomy than it sounds. The story moves at a good clip as the resilient Neil experiments with drinking and dating. The crisis comes when his dad finds him and his girl making out in a coffin. Soon, it’s Neil’s turn to lock his old man, dead drunk, into the basement, before hightailing it to the London of the Swinging ’60s. A friendly queer, Abe Morris, offers him a crash pad, no strings attached, where Neil finds drugs, straight sex, and Zen. The party ends when Abe, stoned, is killed in traffic and Spence abandons conventional narrative to send Neil hopscotching around the world before depositing him, 15 years later, beside the funeral pyres of the Ganges. Here, he gets very sick but is rescued by a vision in a sari: Lila, a Londoner, back home for her father’s funeral. The two fall in love and marry, lickety-split, before Neil is summoned back to Glasgow. His father has died, leaving him the business, which Neil gives a hippie twist, producing brightly painted coffins in unusual shapes, with Lila a business partner. The mood is light and buoyant, but novelistic concerns (what makes Lila tick? why do the couple decide not to have kids?) are shelved in favor of a scrapbook of original last rites, seasoned with Eastern mysticism.

There’s an appealing freshness to Spence’s writing; too bad he gives up on credible plotting and characterization.

Pub Date: May 4, 2004

ISBN: 1-931561-70-2

Page Count: 346

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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

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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

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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