Lively, involving and largely cheerful (despite a graphic rape), but how readers respond will depend in part on their...

LEELA'S BOOK

British travel writer Albinia’s (Empires of the Indus, 2008) first novel retells the Mahabharata in present-day Delhi.

The author makes the epic accessible to less knowledgeable Westerners while keeping its large scope. Elephant-headed Ganesh, the traditional scribe of the Mahabharata, narrates. He summarizes the original epic while explaining how its composer Vyasa, Vyasa’s second wife Meera, the slave girl Leela whom Vyasa impregnated and a slew of secondary characters have reappeared through the ages, reliving the original story of egotism, sexual conquest and intrigue, as well as love and loyalty. In his current incarnation, egotistical, womanizing Vyasa is a professor, internationally famous for his controversial take on ancient texts. He has raised his twin son and daughter alone since the death of his wife Meera, whose poetry he published posthumously to great acclaim. Now his son is marrying the daughter of a reactionary right-wing Hindu named Shiva, whose moral rigidity is pure hypocrisy. Meera’s adopted sister Leela lives in New York City with her husband Hari, who happens to be Shiva’s brother. After 20 years of self-imposed exile, Leela returns to Delhi with Hari to attend the wedding. But she has never told Hari, a sweet-natured businessman, that she knows Vyasa, or anything about her past. A poor orphan, she was adopted by Meera’s parents and raised as Meera’s sister. The two girls were inseparable until Meera fell in love with the young professor Vyasa, a proponent of free love; attracted to both Meera and Leela he unwittingly impregnated them both. Meera pretended both children were hers and cut off communication with Leela before her death when the “twins” were toddlers. Leela comes face-to-face with her past at the Midsummer’s Night Dream of a wedding that causes all the characters to discover their true selves for good or ill.

Lively, involving and largely cheerful (despite a graphic rape), but how readers respond will depend in part on their reaction to a white British woman presuming to author sharp satire of Indian culture.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08270-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2011

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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