MUSIC OF A LIFE

A masterly dramatization of “the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived.”

With matchless delicacy and economy, Makine (Requiem for a Lost Empire, 2001, etc.) chronicles a talented musician’s victimization by the Stalinist purges of the WWII years.

Russian-born Makine’s unnamed narrator is introduced to us “stranded” in a railway station awaiting a delayed train, where he overhears faint strains of music, eavesdrops on an apparently elderly man who’s playing a grand piano in a distant room, and weeping—and then is told the latter’s life story. The stranger is Alexeï Berg, a former musical prodigy who had fled Moscow in 1941—on the eve of his first concert appearance—when his parents, a prominent playwright and a celebrated opera singer, were designated enemies of the state and arrested. In scarcely 70 pages, Makine presents a movingly detailed history of survival, adaptation, and bitter disillusionment, as Alexeï hides from Soviet authorities in an underground room at his uncle’s farm in Ukraine, appropriates the uniform and identity of a young soldier (Sergeï Maltsev) whose body he finds on a battlefield, serves as a general’s driver and becomes the latter’s beneficiary following the war. Then, in a stunning succession of ironies, “Sergeï” grows dangerously close to the general’s teenaged daughter, who urges him to “learn” to play the piano, which she’s studying—with revelatory, and life-altering, consequences. Music of a Life is thin, but perfectly conceived and controlled. Its graceful narrative skillfully blends summarized action with powerfully evocative images—plague survivors wearing long-nosed masks; “the swift arpeggio of the strings snapping in the fire,” in which a prized violin is burned; a woman dragging through a forest a sled which carries a small coffin—charged with strong understated emotion.

A masterly dramatization of “the disconcerting simplicity with which broken lives are lived.”

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2002

ISBN: 1-55970-637-6

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2002

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Awards & Accolades

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A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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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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