Initially sluggish, but not without rewards.

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ABSENT

An intimate picture of life in a Baghdad apartment building during the perilous 1990s (following the Gulf War) is gradually assembled in this colorful novel, originally published by a university press in 2004.

Iraqi-Scottish author (A Sky So Close, 2001) and now Jordanian resident Khedairi presents her story as the arduous “education” of its narrator Dalal, a young woman raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed by an exploding landmine. It’s a compact saga of struggling to survive despite ongoing sectarian enmity and violence and a ruinous economic blockade. Attention focuses first on Dalal’s childless Aunt Umm, a frequently choleric seamstress, and her Uncle Abu Ghayeb. The latter is a memorable comic character: a failed artist who surrounds himself with treasured oil paintings and reels from one impractical moneymaking scheme to another, eventually choosing to prosper as a beekeeper. Neighboring characters, all of whom lament the long-ago “Days of Plenty,” include sagacious fortune teller Umm Mazin (who “reads” dregs in coffee cups, and counsels distraught women who have lost their husbands’ love); gentle diabetic Uncle Sami, going blind because of the difficulty of procuring insulin; and their building’s secretive new owner Saad, who supervises Dalal’s pursuit of formal education, and in effect facilitates the loss of her innocence. Images of looming threats (notably, the sight of children playing with “leftover shrapnel” in the street) aside, the novel is primarily pictorial and virtually devoid of tension or plot until its closing pages, in which the presence of an informer in the building occasions a violent flurry of transformative events. Khedairi makes brilliant metaphoric use of a “war” among Uncle Abu’s bees, begun because “I must have distributed the food unequally amongst the different colonies.”

Initially sluggish, but not without rewards.

Pub Date: July 17, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-8129-7742-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2007

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

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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