A busy but well-constructed tale about new lands and the ghosts of an old one.

THE GIMMICKS

Two cousins emigrate from Armenia, finding their destinies in backgammon and pro wrestling.

You needn’t be well schooled in either sport to appreciate the debut novel by McCormick (Desert Boys: Stories, 2016); both serve mainly as metaphors for the mix of smarts, luck, and fakery that are essential to every immigrant survival story. In the early 1970s, cousins Ruben and Avo were as close as brothers in a rural Armenian town that promises nothing but endless reprosecutions of the country’s genocidal past. One escape hatch is competitive backgammon, and the game has a prodigy in Mina, a young woman who earns a spot in a tournament in Paris. If Avo knocks down her teacher, killing him, was it an accident, or was Avo angling for a seat on the flight? Regardless, Ruben finds his way to France while Avo heads to California; both become involved in secret terrorist plots against Armenia’s Turkish aggressors. A falling-out with those terrorists gets Avo a scar on his forehead and a gig in pro wrestling, where he’s known as the Brow Beater. The busy plotting (Avo’s former manager narrates chapters that move the story into the late 1980s) makes the novel a bit sodden, and anybody looking for lively depictions of wrestling bouts will be disappointed. McCormick is more focused on pro wrestling’s notion of kayfabe, of keeping up appearances to advance a narrative, a sustained theme in Ruben's and Avo’s lives outside of Armenia. On that front, he fully inhabits the cousins’ lives with passion and Slavic dark humor. The truth, McCormick writes “is the only thing that can pin a heart open or seal it off forever.” The pathos of this story comes from the struggle of its protagonists to do either.

A busy but well-constructed tale about new lands and the ghosts of an old one.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-290856-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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