Likely to rank with the best story collections of the year.

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THE EMPTY FAMILY

STORIES

The Irish-born, award-winning novelist reconfirms his mastery of the short story.

Tóibín broadened his readership and raised his profile with the exquisitely bittersweet Brooklyn (2009), and this collection is every bit as rich. Befitting an author who straddles cultures (he teaches at Princeton while retaining a home in Dublin), he peoples his stories with characters trying to navigate between different countries, often involving some reconciliation of a past and present. Many of the stories involve homosexual protagonists (engaged in sexual relations more explicit than anything in Brooklyn), with sexual identity practically another country, a boundary to straddle or cross. “The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” he writes of the reunion in “The Pearl Fishers” of two men and a woman, friends from school, where the woman didn’t know that the men had a physical relationship before she fell in love with one of them and married him. The story builds to the revelations that have brought them together again with the things that must remain unsaid. Though most of the stories involve family dynamics (as did his Mothers and Sons: Stories, 2007), the narratives underscore “how apart people were…how deeply and singly themselves.” A strong sense of mortality also permeates the stories, as the first-person narrator of the title story meditates on how “I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts.” The last story is the longest and one of the strongest, as the 68 pages of “The Street” find a Pakistani immigrant to Barcelona, brought there in a contemporary form of indentured servitude, learning so much about power, others and himself. It’s a novel’s worth of material compressed into a long story.

Likely to rank with the best story collections of the year.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4391-3832-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2010

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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