Somewhat overcomplicated but ultimately satisfying. Anastasia Romanov lives yet again!

I WAS ANASTASIA

Anna Anderson’s claim to be Anastasia Romanov—sole survivor of the murder of the czar’s family during the Bolshevik Revolution—is explored in this drama of historical suspense.

In her third novel, Lawhon (Flight of Dreams, 2016, etc.) fictionalizes the story of a woman named Anna Anderson, who was pulled out of a canal in Germany after a 1920 suicide attempt. She claimed to be the surviving daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov. The czar, his wife, and his five children, along with a few family servants, were famously shot en masse…but this woman claims she escaped. Not only does she resemble Anastasia, but she has the scars on her body that would necessarily be there if she had survived the shooting, and in the course of the 50-year period during which she makes this claim, she wins important supporters, including a childhood friend of the czarevna—as well as many detractors, particularly among the extended Romanov family. Lawhon tells Anna’s story in reverse: from 1970 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she awaits the results of the final German court ruling on her identity, going backward to 1920, when she was pulled out of the canal. Anastasia’s tale is told in the first person in the opposite direction, starting in 1917 with the Romanovs being taken prisoner in their palace and going forward through their exile in Siberia to the night of the murders. This makes a certain amount of sense, as it allows the story to converge on the moment of truth, when we will find out if Anna is, as she certainly seems to be, Anastasia. What pushes it a little too far from the point of view of readability is the decision to tell individual Anna chapters backward. So, for example, a chapter that covers the period 1928-29 starts in November ’29, then has a section set four months earlier, then six months earlier, then one month earlier, and so forth. Anna’s globe-trotting trials and tribulations are hard enough to follow without this level of intricacy. So the Anastasia story ends up being the more compelling of the two, hurtling as it does to its grisly ending. Then comes an interesting Author’s Note, where Lawhon discusses her process and decisions.

Somewhat overcomplicated but ultimately satisfying. Anastasia Romanov lives yet again!

Pub Date: March 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-385-54169-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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