A complex but rewarding meditation on the monstrous dreams of reason.

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THE VALLEY OF THE FALLEN

Spanish novelist and art historian Rojas delivers a politically charged, time-shifting portrait of the painter Francisco Goya in a time of repression.

Goya painted his subjects as he saw them, to sometimes precarious result, as when he turned in a portrait of the royal family that “lay bare in their features the stupidity, ambition, and duplicitous cunning that dwell within them.” For all that Goya was nearly indigent, deaf, and suffering from “the syphilis that perhaps he hadn’t known until then he had contracted in his early youth,” he was also exquisitely attuned to questions of political survival—a useful skill given that his bête noire if also odd confidant, the king, proudly describes himself as “your Saturn, devouring my people.” Leapfrogging decades, the scene shifts to another Saturn, the dying Francisco Franco, and the time of an art historian and intellectual, Sandro Vasari, “a descendant of Giorgio Vasari and three generations of émigrés terroni.” He is discontented, a hard drinker in a turbulent relationship, but finds meaning in the work of Goya, whose biography he is struggling to write and who was there at the dawn of “the liberal tradition that filled almost a century and a half of history, in spite of so many armed interruptions and its own errors, falsehoods, political bosses, and limitations of every kind”—and that Franco, his heart steadily failing, tried to end for so long. The title of Rojas’ novel is that of a monument to the Spanish Civil War dead, but this multistrained story points resolutely to the more distant past, as if to say that bad as things are now, they were as bad or worse then, and, conversely, much as we might believe in the promise of progress, things never really improve: our world is one of despots and tyrants, and it’s up to the artists, morally wanting though they might be, to document it.

A complex but rewarding meditation on the monstrous dreams of reason.

Pub Date: March 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-300-21796-4

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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