A LONG WAY FROM HOME

In a disappointing third novel, the bestselling author of Big Girls Don—t Cry (1996), etc., draws on her family’s history in a story about slavery, miscegenation, and the Civil War. The aim is worthy, but Briscoe never follows through on events or fully explores her characters, who remain curiously sealed off from one another and the times they live in. The story begins in the last years of James Madison’s life, out of office and living at Montpelier, where house-slave Susan works as a housekeeper, aided by ten-year old daughter Clara. As she grows up, Clara describes her increasing anger with whites and her hatred of slavery. Following Madison’s death, Dolley Madison’s wastrel son Todd, deeply in debt, sells many of the slaves as well as Montpelier. Clara stays on under the succession of white masters, one of whom fathers her two daughters, Ellen and Susan (the author’s great-great grandmother) who are fair enough to pass as white. Curiously, Clara never explains the circumstances or names the man. When yet another master takes over, daughter Susan is sold to a Mr. Willard, a rich banker in Richmond whom Susan recognizes as the white man who gave her pennies when she was a child. She also looks like his daughters, Lizbeth and Ellen, but nothing is said or thought about this curious circumstance. As Susan becomes part of the household, looking after Lizbeth’s children and falling in love with freed slave Oliver Armistead, the Civil War begins. Susan and Oliver marry, but he’s taken away to man the defenses of Richmond and she must live with the Willard family, which continues to be self-absorbed and terminally stupid. Even when the War ends, they don’t seem to grasp its implications, but Susan, realizing now that she’s free, is reunited with Oliver and heads to the Tidewater to make a new home and life. Heartfelt, but a thin and unsatisfying take on a weighty and still urgent subject. (First printing of 150,000, $350,000 ad/promo, author tour)

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-06-017278-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1999

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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