Erudite and graceful, but this one somehow loses its point halfway through, running on and on to no apparent end.

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THE LIGHTNING CAGE

From Welsh novelist Wall (The School of Night, 2002, etc.), an odd, meandering account of a wayward seminarian’s attempts to uncover the mysteries surrounding a mad 18th-century poet,.

With the solitary exception of Stalin, seminary dropouts rarely go on to achieve much in the way of worldly success. Christopher Bayliss is a case in point: a meek and tentative Englishman, Christopher spent several years in Rome preparing for his ordination only to chuck it all at the last minute with no very clear idea of what he would do instead. He returned to Britain and enrolled as a graduate student at Leeds, where he began to research the life of one Richard Pelham, an obscure poet of the Augustan Age as renowned in his own time for his madness as for his verse. Christopher finds Pelham at once repellent and fascinating, and he continues his investigations even after quarreling with his adviser and dropping out of the university. He becomes a sales rep with a printing firm that specializes in making reproductions of museum prints, eventually rises to director of the company, then gets forced out when his immediate supervisor is found to be a swindler and embezzler. After he’s injured in a car crash, Christopher goes home to live with his mother and continue his research while living on his disability benefits. As he delves deeper into the life of Pelham, he becomes convinced that the man suffered not from madness but from demonic possession, and Christopher finds himself pressed once more into the deepest recesses of Catholic theology as he attempts to make some sense of the poor man’s maladies. But eventually the question arises: Is Christopher trying to understand Pelham, or himself? The demons that have possessed Christopher may not require exorcism, but they do demand a long-postponed coming to terms with his past. Sooner or later, a reckoning will need to be made.

Erudite and graceful, but this one somehow loses its point halfway through, running on and on to no apparent end.

Pub Date: March 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-312-28772-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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