MANLY PURSUITS

Harries’s first novel is a triumph: a captivating, intelligent work taking the reader to the South Africa of Cecil Rhodes, in 1899, a region on the brink of war. In an elegant merging of idea and character, Harries tells the story of the dying imperialist Rhodes (—The Colossus—), who believes his life will be saved if he can hear again the birds of his native England. With Rhodes begin the themes of the tragedies of power and the quest for control. He hires the Oxford ornithologist Frederick Wills, a private, anxious don, to escort a shipload of songbirds to the Great Granary, Rhodes’s manorial residences. Guests there include Rudyard and Mrs. Kipling and Leander Jameson, the leader of the infamous Jameson Raid that precipitated the Boer War; and Wills embarks on his utopian voyage in the aftermath of the trial and imprisonment of his friend Oscar Wilde, with whom he had studied at Oxford under aesthetician John Ruskin. Having abandoned Wilde to his imprisonment, Wills approaches the Great Granary with a troubled, betrayer’s soul. But great appetites abound as he arrives: Rhodes’s ambition to subjugate Africa, Jameson’s hope of fulfilling his loyalty to Rhodes, the Kiplings” fascination with young innocence—as well as the English power to “civilize.” In deftly written interjections, Wills recalls Ruskin’s obsessions with natural beauty and Wilde’s exhilarating flirtations with sexual and moral taboos. This concentration of aspirations unsettles him, and his own dream of innocent beauty uncorrupted by the human yearning for possession blossoms in his friendship with a South African girl, who enchantingly (and dangerously) flits in and out of view. Harries’s ambition is broad, but her superb control of Wills’s fussy voice—the narrative prism used to view these historical figures—diminishes their “fame” while enhancing the intimacy with which Wills and the reader comprehends them. Far from a costume history, this is a genuinely provocative debut novel about a place and time whose tragedy, folly, and several conflicted hearts are instantly recognizable.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 1-58234-019-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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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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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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