A lackluster novel from a great writer.

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A VIEW OF THE EMPIRE AT SUNSET

Another novel with a Brontë connection from the award-winning British author.

Long before she became known for writing the feminist classic Wide Sargasso Sea, the author Jean Rhys was a girl named Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Phillips begins his fictional account of Rhys’ life with her childhood on the island of Dominica, in the British West Indies. In his last book, The Lost Child (2015), Phillips used Wuthering Heights as the inspiration for a modern story about race and colonialism. The connections between Emily Brontë’s life and work and Phillips’ own novel were both rich and subtle. Race and colonialism are key themes, here, too, but their treatment is less thought-provoking, in part because race and colonialism are such obvious factors in Rhys’ biography and her masterpiece. For instance, it comes as no surprise that young Gwendolen’s (this is the spelling Phillips uses) mother doesn’t want her to socialize with the child of “Negro” servants, and Phillips’ depiction of the moment when Gwendolen is forever separated from her friend goes unexamined. Indeed, this novel is, for the most part, written in a blandly expository style, and it often veers dangerously close to cliché. Also, Phillips makes the stylistic choice to refer to his protagonist only as “she” (except when other characters refer to her in dialogue), regardless of any interfering antecedent, and there are many instances in which this is confusing, even for the reader who’s learned to expect it. After The Lost Child, this novel is a bit of a letdown. This is surprising, too, because Rhys led an undeniably unusual life. After she left home—at her parents’ insistence—for England at the age of 16, she studied acting. She spent much of the 1920s in Paris. She had numerous lovers and three husbands. And her oeuvre, though small, has been hugely influential, especially for female writers and academics. Phillips is under no obligation to make his protagonist sensational, of course, but he doesn’t even make her interesting. We get that Gwen is high-strung. We watch as she endures disappointments and tragedies. We see all this as if from a distance. There’s no depth here.

A lackluster novel from a great writer.

Pub Date: May 22, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-28361-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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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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