Fresh, fast-moving historical fiction from a master storyteller.

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THE LIVING INFINITE

A real 19th-century Bourbon infanta is the inspiration for this novel about a princess who writes a rebellious feminist memoir.

It begins with a rejection letter informing HRH Eulalia of Spain that though there may be “a great deal of truth in what [she says],” Ediciones Medina “will not, today nor ever, publish this book.” From there, Acevedo (The Distant Marvels, 2015, etc.) launches a wonderfully compact saga that weaves together real and invented characters and events. Around the same time infanta Eulalia was born, at least in Acevedo’s version, so was a boy named Tomás in the village of Burgos—and when his mother, Amalia, was chosen as the infanta’s wet nurse, he became Eulalia’s “milk brother.” Mother and son traveled to the Palacio Real, where for nearly two years they lived among the intrigues, infidelities, and indoor peacocks of the Spanish court. As much as Amalia misses her husband, the person she really pines for is her best friend, the midwife Gisela, but troubles similar to those that plague the palace are afoot at home, forever changing the relationships of all the key characters. In the next section of the book, we hear from Eulalia and Tomás, each telling one part of the story that brought them together again—she as the author of a scathing memoir, still trapped in her royal role; he as an unsuccessful bookseller asked by Su Alteza (her highness) to find her a publisher. From there the story finds its way to revolutionary Cuba and on to the Chicago Exposition of 1893, with a coda set in 1915. The dramatic changes of the period spanned by the book, which begins in a world which seems not far from medieval and ends among light bulbs, hotel rooms, and train stations, are subtly evoked, and its feminist themes are fitted elegantly into that frame.

Fresh, fast-moving historical fiction from a master storyteller.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-60945-430-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: July 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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