A sweeping, if flawed, historical novel.



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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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in...

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This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright.

It’s not for nothing that Ng (Everything I Never Told You, 2014) begins her second novel, about the events leading to the burning of the home of an outwardly perfect-seeming family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997, with two epigraphs about the planned community itself—attesting to its ability to provide its residents with “protection forever against…unwelcome change” and “a rather happy life” in Utopia. But unwelcome change is precisely what disrupts the Richardson family’s rather happy life, when Mia, a charismatic, somewhat mysterious artist, and her smart, shy 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, move to town and become tenants in a rental house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents. Mia and Pearl live a markedly different life from the Richardsons, an affluent couple and their four high school–age children—making art instead of money (apart from what little they need to get by); rooted in each other rather than a particular place (packing up what fits in their battered VW and moving on when “the bug” hits); and assembling a hodgepodge home from creatively repurposed, scavenged castoffs and love rather than gathering around them the symbols of a successful life in the American suburbs (a big house, a large family, gleaming appliances, chic clothes, many cars). What really sets Mia and Pearl apart and sets in motion the events leading to the “little fires everywhere” that will consume the Richardsons’ secure, stable world, however, is the way they hew to their own rules. In a place like Shaker Heights, a town built on plans and rules, and for a family like the Richardsons, who have structured their lives according to them, disdain for conformity acts as an accelerant, setting fire to the dormant sparks within them. The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege.

With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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