A thoroughly engrossing, beautifully told look at human frailty.

CATHEDRAL

This first novel by screenwriter Hopkins imagines a paean to the glory of God arising from the unholy muck of the Middle Ages.

By the year 1229, a lofty Cathedral—a bishop’s vanity project, always capitalized—is already in the works in Hagenburg, Germany. The Bishop’s treasurer is not enamored of the idea, opining that “a constant river of silver and gold flows into that damned hole, providing the wages of the idle, and paying quarrymen, foresters and glaziers for their so-called labour.” The bishop has just “passed into Glory,” the Lord Treasurer is abroad, the pope is dead, infidel hordes besiege Jerusalem, and “all is in turmoil and flux.” No wonder the Cathedral takes so long to build. Meanwhile, young Rettich Schäffer is an apprentice stonecutter working on the Cathedral, wanting to buy his freedom from the bishop, so he borrows from a Jewish moneylender. The stories of Christians and Jews intertwine over the decades, with piety and decency largely absent from center stage. Surrounding the rising edifice in Hagenburg are degradations of every kind—“the siren calls of Temptation, Debauchery and Vice” and “the Magical World of the Goyyim. Sodom without cataclysm.” Hypocrisy abounds, as when Father Arnold chants over the bodies of dead bandits, because “God listens to what he says….The priest gets an extra sixpence for every Last Rite he gives. He was probably praying for a massacre.” Jews like Yudl ben Yitzhak Rosheimer privately regard the Cathedral as “the Abomination.” To him it is “just a pile of stones and vain idols, an excrescence of the sinful earth.” Well, it’s either that or “the finest Cathedral in the German Lands.” Across the decades, no one character dominates this story of ambition, vanity, and power. In the midst of a plague, a mother and child find cold comfort within the completed empty church as “the Witch of Winter rode the wind.”

A thoroughly engrossing, beautifully told look at human frailty.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-60945-611-5

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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