Sweeping and ambitious.

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THE BOSTON CASTRATO

Weaving together a dizzying number of intersecting plots, Sargent (Museum of Human Beings, 2009) captures the bustling excitement—and seedy grit—of early 1920s Boston.

As a child in Naples, angel-voiced orphan Rafaele Pèsca is taken under the wing of a renegade priest and castrated to protect his “one and only grace”—never mind that the practice is newly banned by the church. When higher-ups catch wind of what’s happened, Raffi is forbidden ever to sing again, at all, for any reason—his voice, having been “disfigured by the devil,” is now an abomination against God. And with that, the boy is put on a boat headed for an orphanage in New York City to “start a new life” not defined by “what is simply a medical condition.” But as adolescence approaches, his differences make him a target among the boys, and as his peers prepare to head to the front, Raffi hops on a boat back to Italy, where he excels on staff at the Hotel Forum, having discovered “a transforming eroticism in making strangers’ lives more fulfilled.” His return, though, is short-lived, and, rejected in Rome, Raffi once again heads toward America, this time to seek his fortune in Boston—ideally, at the world-famous Parker House, epicenter of the city’s elite. Arriving in the city, Raffi hustles his way into a job waiting tables and finds himself inducted into a society swirling with energy. Under the wing of Victor, his colleague and confidant, Raffi is introduced to the world of poet Amy Lowell and her partner, the actress Ada Russell, and their associates (many, though not all, of the characters here will ring a bell). He encounters love and tragedy, mobsters and mediums. While Raffi is the novel’s hero, the book is a whirlwind of perspectives and voices—some more successful than others—from art collector Belle Gardner to a colony of bacterium. The sheer number of characters can make the novel somewhat difficult to track, but the reward is a richly atmospheric melodrama that resonates.

Sweeping and ambitious.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2016

ISBN: 9781909954205

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Barbican Press

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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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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