EARTHLY POWERS

Much too, long and just as loosely assembled as his other recent novels, Burgess' latest black-comic variation on man's sin and God's cruel tricks does have, however, an engagingly grandiose design: the life of homosexual, lapsed-Catholic Kenneth Toomey—a popular, second-rate novelist/playwright whose dates (1890-1971) and connections embrace most of the sexual, artistic, and religious pressure points of the century's first half. Approximately 75% Maugham, 15% Coward, and 10% Waugh, Toomey begins his narration at age 81—when, self-exiled in Malta and wrangling with his latest lover-secretary, he's asked to support the canonization of the late Pope Gregory XVII with a written recollection of one of the Pope's miracles. A book-length flashback then ensues, of course, starting with Toomey at 26, unsuccessfully "trying to reconcile my sexual urges with my religious faith." Dumped by a smarmy, mincing poet (a lifelong nemesis), threatened with scandal over an affair with a married actor, and depressed by his mother's horror at his homosexuality, Toomey leaves London for Europe—where he falls in with the rich Campanati brothers: anti-prohibition businessman Rafaelle, who'll be a Mafia victim in the US; hack composer Domenico, who'll marry Toomey's sister Hortense and (wisely) sell out to Hollywood; but, above all, fat Carlo, a gluttonous, gambling, devout exorcist-priest with whom Toomey debates the matter of free will. And when Toomey find true love with a doctor in Kuala Kangsar who gets fatally cursed by a native Satanist, it's Carlo who magically appears for an exorcism—an impressive, though futile, performance . . . soon followed by Carlo's miracle cure of a dying child in a Chicago hospital. From the Thirties on, however, the novel becomes more lazily episodic, a parade of global and personal calamities to parallel the climbs of Toomey and anti-fascist Carlo (who's out to "make Pope"): the Campanatis' mother dies while trying to assassinate Himmler (who's saved, embarrassingly, by Toomey); Toomey attempts to rescue an Austrian Nobel-winner but merely winds up on German radio sounding pro-Nazi (like poor P.G. Wode-house); Hortense, now with a black lesbian lover, loses an eye in a freak accident. And after Carlo does make Pope in 1958, becoming ecumenical Gregory XVII, family woes escalate: Hortense's anthropologist son is killed by African terrorists (the murder is later linked to the natives' wayward embrace of Catholicism!); her lover dies in agony; and her granddaughter dies in a Jonestown-like mass suicide led by guru Godfrey Manning . . . who turns out to have been that child whom Carlo miraculously healed years ago in Chicago!! So much for miracles—and free will—and life—is what pessimist Burgess (a professed "renegade Catholic") once again seems to be saying; and that one-note theme is hardly resonant enough to round out the sketchy characterization and daffy plotting here. Still, Toomey is an ideal Burgess narrator—bitchy, erudite, wordplaying—and his involvements with America, academia, opera, musicals, and literature (boozy Joyce, smelly Forster, Havelock Ellis, Kipling, a censorship trial in which Toomey finally comes out of the closet), inspire slashing put-downs, wicked parodies, and splendidly whimsical allusions of all sorts. Despite all the issues and debates, then: an essentially skin-deep entertainment, chiefly for savvy Anglophiles and theologically inclined littÉrateurs, which—as Toomey says of his own work—takes unprofound material and manages "to elevate it through wit, allusion and irony to something like art.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1980

ISBN: 1609450841

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1980

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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