An often depressing, cautionary and thoroughly excellent tale of the excesses of empire, ambition and the too easily...

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THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL

National Book Award—winning novelist Shacochis (The Immaculate Invasion, 1999, etc.) makes a long-awaited—indeed, much-anticipated—return to fiction with this stunning novel of love, innocence and honor lost.

The wait was worth it, for Shacochis has delivered a work that in its discomfiting moral complexity and philosophical density belongs alongside Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. Tom Harrington is a humanitarian lawyer whose path takes him into difficult country: Haiti in the wake of dictatorship and storm, for one. He is unsettled and lonely, even as his stateside wife is one of those blessedly ignorant Americans who “pray for the deafness that comes with a comfortable life”—a comfortable life that would be much more attainable were Tom someone who cared about money. He is not saintly, though. Into his orbit has come a fetching, utterly mysterious journalist whom Tom has met more than once along the trail of good deeds done by sometimes not so good people. Her murder sends him reeling into a long, arcing story of discovery that becomes ever more tangled as Shacochis spins it, taking it across decades and oceans. Among the players are a tough-as-nails Delta Force combatant who surely knows that he’s being played as a pawn by the likes of an unlikable senior spook who lives for opera, cocktails and deception; even so, the soldier takes pride in his role in what he calls “Jihadi pest control,” just as the spy takes pride in what he did in all those dark corners during the Cold War. These characters are bound to one another, and to Jackie, by blood or elective affinities. Either way, Shacochis would seem to suggest, their real business is to hide themselves from the world, while the business of the world is to help them disguise their subterfuge. Everything in the landscape is secret and forbidden, potentially fatal, doomed to fail—and yet everyone persists, presses on, with what they believe their missions to be. Shacochis is a master of characterization; his story, though very long, moves like a fast-flowing river, and it is memorably, smartly written: “ ‘Cleopatra spoke nine languages,’ Jackie informed him with a distinctly peevish rise to her voice for what she obviously considered a set series of infinitely tiresome challenges to the perception of her specialness, the unfair excesses of her drop-dead good looks or intellect or courage or God knows, her very birth, as if she had somehow stolen those laudable parts of herself from someone else, an imaginary deprived person.”

An often depressing, cautionary and thoroughly excellent tale of the excesses of empire, ambition and the too easily fragmented human soul.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1982-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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