This reboot of an ancient story is alternately fiery and plodding, but Tóibín plainly grasps the reasons for its...

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HOUSE OF NAMES

Tóibín, an enthusiast of classic storytelling, from the Bible (The Testament of Mary, 2012) to Henry James (The Master, 2004), this time takes a crack at Greek mythology.

This novel of palace intrigue is inspired by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, focusing on the House of Atreus’ murderous infighting. Clytemnestra is provoked into a homicidal rage toward her husband, King Agamemnon, for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to win the Trojan War. As Clytemnestra schemes with her lover, Aegisthus, to plot Agamemnon’s death and fill the power vacuum in his wake, her two other children, Orestes and Electra, are sent into exile. And though the children eventually make their way back into the palace halls and mom’s trust, paranoia abounds within every relationship (“a performance that started with smiles and ended with shrieks,” as Electra puts it). The novel is broken into sections focusing on Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes, and the novel’s intensity—and to a large degree, its success—depends on who’s doing the talking. Clytemnestra, narrating in the first person, is a captivating and terrifying figure, heartbroken and ruthless in her lust for power. (“The gurgling sound he would make when I cut his throat became my obsession,” she fumes.) But Orestes’ portion of the tale, narrated in the third person, runs at a low boil of mustier fable-speak despite being packed with themes of protection, vengeance, and self-defense. That makes the novel feel tonally disjointed, but throughout, Tóibín captures the way that corruption breeds resentment and how resentment almost unstoppably breeds violence. The original myths established these characters as the gods’ playthings, but Tóibín reframes this version in “a time when the gods are fading,” the better to lay the blame for our human failures plainly on ourselves.

This reboot of an ancient story is alternately fiery and plodding, but Tóibín plainly grasps the reasons for its timelessness.

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-4021-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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