Good fun, duly grounded in history.

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CITY OF GLORY

A NOVEL OF WAR AND DESIRE IN OLD MANHATTAN

The Great Mogul diamond, a slave-catching scam and a plot to produce opium in America stir the melodramatic pot in Swerling’s riotous tale of New York City, circa 1814.

In her sequel to City of Dreams, Swerling follows the exploits of Joyful Turner, a skilled surgeon who, after losing a hand to a cannonball during a naval battle, must find a new occupation. When cousin Andrew, also a surgeon, reveals a treasure map left by Joyful’s late father Morgan, Joyful tracks down Morgan’s comrade-in-arms, Finbar O’Toole, who’s just successfully skippered Gornt Blakeman’s ship the Canton Star, loaded with tea, silks and other riches of the East, past a British blockade. Blakeman, Joyful and Joyful’s cousin “Bastard” Devrey vie to control the China trade, but all three men face formidable competition from Jacob Astor. With no livelihood (besides his stake in a bordello/casino, the Dancing Knave), Joyful cannot formally court Manon Vionne, the lovely Huguenot whose father, Maurice, a jeweler, appraises Blakeman’s giant diamond, smuggled into the city aboard the Star. Also smuggled ashore, unbeknownst to Blakeman, is Thumbless Wu, a Cantonese merchant hoping to grow opium poppies in Manhattan. Dancing Knave’s madame, Delight Higgins, loves Joyful (who doesn’t realize she’s his long-lost niece’s former slave) but knows he’s obsessed with Manon. Blakeman resents Joyful’s business incursions and seeks Manon for himself. When she resists, her father confines her to quarters, curtailing her secret trysts with Joyful. Meanwhile, Joyful’s nephew concocts a mighty profitable elixir of laudanum. The ever-shifting alliances defy disentanglement, and some plotlines beggar belief: A widow in reduced circumstances teams up with a pirate to nab free blacks and collect runaway slave bounties, and Blakeman hopes his diamond will prompt the Holy Roman Emperor to back New York’s secession from the Union. Propelled by brisk, evocative language, the story stalls whenever Swerling cuts to the British army’s assault on Washington—necessary exposition perhaps, but an irritating detour from the excitement in New York.

Good fun, duly grounded in history.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2007

ISBN: 0-7432-6920-9

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2006

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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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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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