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THINK OF ENGLAND

At best, a qualified success. Dark’s most accomplished work thus far remains her short fiction.

A lonely woman’s painfully extended rite of passage is compassionately explored in this affecting, though uneven first novel by storywriter Dark (In the Gloaming, 2000, etc.).

It’s 1969 when we first meet protagonist Jane, the precociously introspective nine-year-old daughter of successful Pennsylvania surgeon Emlin MacLeod and his extroverted wife “Via” (Olivia), as their family of six eagerly await the Beatles’ first American TV appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Echoes of Robb Forman Dew’s domestic psychological studies are sounded gracefully in these early pages, which efficiently dramatize Jane’s secretiveness (she’s writing a story, which, she’ll later realize, “was meant to be a study of how a family pulls together to handle adversity”) and helpless love for the overburdened Emlin, as well as the emerging cracks in her parents’ seemingly perfect marriage. Later episodes observe Jane at age 24 as a tourist living in London in the orbits of a pair of glamorous poseurs whose affectations (as Dark acknowledges) resemble the behavior of Evelyn Waugh’s Bridesheads and an older American writer still “technically married” and emotionally unavailable; then in 2000, herself the single mother of nine-year-old Emily, back in America and returned home for Via’s 65th birthday party—during which both a long-delayed confrontation between mother and daughter, and the possibility of their reconciliation, finally occur. Think of England (its title a stiff-upper-lip mantra chanted by the veddy British side of Jane’s family) is smoothly written, and initially quite engaging, but founders when Jane (herself a well-portrayed and interesting character) plays second fiddle to her London chums, mercurial Colette and soulfully gay Nigel (both clichés), and obsesses over novelist Clay(ton) West, an idea who never comes to life. Only Jane’s globe-hopping gay Uncle Francis manages to liven things up occasionally.

At best, a qualified success. Dark’s most accomplished work thus far remains her short fiction.

Pub Date: May 2, 2002

ISBN: 0-684-86522-X

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2002

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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