This fascinating 19th-century take on Orange Is the New Black is subtle, intelligent, and thrillingly melodramatic.

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THE EXILES

A London governess and a Scottish midwife’s neglected daughter are sent to a penal colony in Australia, where an Aboriginal girl is in another sort of captivity.

Kline’s monumental eighth novel opens in 1840 on Flinders Island, Australia, where an 8-year-old orphan named Mathinna is whisked away from her tribe at the whimsy of visiting dignitary Lady Franklin, who fancies training one of the "savages." A necklace of shells made by her mother and a pet possum named Waluka are all Mathinna can take from the life she knew. Across the ocean, 21-year-old Evangeline, also recently orphaned, is fired from her job in London and sent to Newgate Prison when a family treasure is found in her room—and this is not the only problematic gift she has received from the family’s eldest son, now conveniently traveling in Venice. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, half-starved 16-year-old urchin Hazel Ferguson is caught stealing a silver spoon. Evangeline and Hazel become acquainted on the Medea, a former slaving ship bound for the prison colony where the now obviously pregnant Evangeline is to serve a sentence of 14 years. Kline takes her time with this epic story, creating each of her nightmarish and uniquely malodorous settings in detail, from the harrowing months at sea with the randy and violent sailors to the strange new world that awaits Evangeline and Hazel in the convict colony. Once back on land, the narrative loops in poor lonely Mathinna, whose life now consists mainly of being dragged out at tea parties to be pawed and humiliated, then clicks into high gear when Hazel gets a work-release assignment as a maid in Lady Franklin’s household. This episode in history gets a top-notch treatment by Kline, one of our foremost historical novelists.

This fascinating 19th-century take on Orange Is the New Black is subtle, intelligent, and thrillingly melodramatic.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-235634-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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