A sweeping, if flawed, historical novel.

WOMAN IN BATTLE DRESS

The final novel from Cuban writer Benítez-Rojo (1931-2005) is a grand historical work about the kind of woman history often ignores.

As a medical student in 19th-century France, Henriette Faber disguised herself as a man. Eventually, she entered Napoleon’s army as a surgeon. Though she aspired to saving lives, she eventually became a criminal, guilty of perjury, "sexual deviance" (according to the mores of the time, anyway), and plenty more, banned from all other Spanish territories. Benítez-Rojo embodies this woman, a spiritual sister of Defoe’s Moll Flanders. What drove her from potential heroism into destitution? To answer this question, the novel moves from New York to Paris, from New Orleans to Cuba, spanning the globe and including situations of sweeping romance (this is the kind of story Ophüls or Visconti would’ve made a film of in the 1950s) but always remaining anchored to Henriette’s thoughtful first-person narration—sometimes too thoughtful. The prose here is dense and purposefully old-fashioned; it’s the kind of book where sentences begin, “It was said that….” This is a big novel and a slow-going one, measured in its pace even in its more emotional moments. For example, the first section follows Henriette’s marriage to Robert—a relationship that the movie posters would describe as “tumultuous” even though the reader rarely senses Henriette or the author getting worked up; this book is often distant by design. Nevertheless, Benítez-Rojo has a knack for simile—a street “looks like a long black cat," and an unwanted visitor is “like a mortar shell”—and rarely has a historical person been so fully inhabited since Yourcenar told the story of Hadrian. Eventually, the novel morphs into metatext: “I believe that all writing has a utilitarian purpose,” the narrator says, trying to write her story. And often, the matter of embodying another person’s consciousness is useful enough.

A sweeping, if flawed, historical novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-87286-676-8

Page Count: 512

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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