BODY OF KNOWLEDGE

Dawson (The Waking Spell, 1992) masterfully incorporates her central Texas characters into a magical, multigenerational, utterly mesmerizing struggle between good and evil. Back in the early 1920s, Grant Macafee's attraction to Sarah Ransom wasn't love, but a terrible sickness—that's what 500-pound recluse Victoria Ransom's old servant, Viola, tells her with absolute conviction. It was a passion that overwhelmed the sticklike body of the young Grant as he attended parties at the Ransoms' limestone mansion, a house paid for by the phenomenally successful ice business run by Sarah's and Grant's fathers. Entwined though the two families were through business concerns, Sarah refused to marry Grant, consenting only to an affair with him—until, pregnant, she fled her home, never to return. Enraged, Grant impulsively married the woman coveted by Sarah's amiable brother, William—but was humiliated a second time when his wife gave birth to William's child. Grant's fury extended to the entire Ransom family, and in his subsequent isolation it grew to an unalloyed reservoir of evil intent. As the decades passed, Ransoms began regularly to disappear or fall down dead, and the servant Viola begged William to destroy Grant and free the family from his curse. Gently reared William's equivocation in the face of such evil mirrored his country's contemporaneous waffling as Hitler's forces spread across Europe. A believer in the power of his own goodness, William was forced to witness much more—his eldest son's mysterious death, his grieving sister's collapse, his second son's murder—before he understood that the forces of evil had already won. It is William's granddaughter Victoria (the youngest and the largest of all the Ransoms) who, by writing down every monstrous detail Viola has told her, manages to defeat the demons and thereby free her own imprisoned soul as well. This hallucinatory tale grips the reader with its gothic undertones while seriously exploring the complexities of the human soul. Once again, Dawson proves herself an astonishingly accomplished novelist very early in her career. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1994

ISBN: 1-56512-054-X

Page Count: 476

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1994

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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