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WEST

A masterful first novel—the sort of book that warms even as it devastates, that forces serious reflection and yet charms.

In the early 19th century, a man quests into the American West and finds a world teetering between extinction and dreams.

A decade or so after the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Cyrus Bellman, a widower and mule breeder, reads in the newspaper of the discovery of “monstrous bones…sunk in the salty Kentucky mud” and is convinced that “the same gigantic monsters still [walk] the earth in the unexplored territories of the west.” Promising to write frequently, Bellman leaves his preteen daughter, Bess, on his Pennsylvania farm and heads west. What follows is the story of Bess’ waiting and Bellman’s wandering; the story of the letters Bellman sends and their unlucky eastward journeys; the story of Bellman’s guide, “an ill-favored, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance” and whose tribe—after being harassed by settlers and paid off in trinkets—has recently undertaken its own less-voluntary western migration. Bess dreams of her father’s return while struggling to evade the predatory attentions of two local men. Bellman, a soft-spoken Ahab, suffers winters “harder than he’d thought possible” yet remains enthralled by “the notion that…there were always things…you hadn’t dreamed of.” Old Woman From A Distance is at once “angry about the past, but ambitious for the future” and must eventually decide whether to undertake a quest of his own. Welsh author Davies’ (The Redemption of Galen Pike, 2017, etc.) slim, complex, and achingly beautiful first novel is a sculpture of daring shifts and provocative symmetries welded together by lyrical, fast-paced prose. Davies dispenses with troublesome thousand-mile wildernesses in a sentence and dashes between the minds of both principal and ancillary characters. The result is a choral performance, reminiscent of those by Penelope Fitzgerald: The reader enjoys a story far greater in its sweep and better-linked in its causes than any of that story’s participants can appreciate. Deployed on the stage of the midlapsarian American frontier, Davies’ chorus manages to weave threads of myth and hope into the gnarly chords of historical tragedy.

A masterful first novel—the sort of book that warms even as it devastates, that forces serious reflection and yet charms.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7934-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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