A vivid, absorbing tale of Europe painfully shaking off the shackles of the past.

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY

America becomes the endpoint of a European family’s transgenerational journey through upheaval, religious persecution, and endless domestic labor in this debut historical novel.

The story begins with a lugubrious bang when Pierre de la Vigne, a woodcarver in Valenciennes, part of the Spanish Netherlands in 1535, returns home from a business trip with bubonic plague and dies in his father Nicolas’ arms. Ever practical, Nicolas quarantines himself in the workshop and spends his last days bludgeoning the hundreds of rats swarming around him. That opening introduces prominent themes in Alley’s epic: the constant threat of sudden death; the verminous filth of a time before modern sanitation; and the importance of the close-knit patriarchal family, which accomplished many things now done by corporations, schools, and churches. The resilient de la Vigne clan is thus the collective main character as it moves on with second son, Emile, as head of the business and a household including his stepmother, Maria, widowed sister-in-law Louise, and younger siblings. They prosper over the decades, but the Reformation fuels conflict within the family—Emile and Louise marry and convert to Calvinism while Maria clings to Roman Catholicism, provoking tense theological discussions—and between the Catholic Church, a snake pit of corruption in the novel’s telling, and the city’s burgeoning Protestant population. When a Catholic governor orders the conquest of Valenciennes in 1566, Emile is arrested and the family faces exile. Jumping ahead to the early 17th century, the narrative refocuses on Emile’s grandson Guillaume; with Valenciennes prostrate under the Jesuit boot, he heads to Protestant Amsterdam to seek his fortune and finds it when he and his wife cross the Atlantic to start a fur-trading post in frontier Mannahatta. Along the way, there are plenty of household chores, which form the sprawling tale’s central action. Whole chapters are consumed in preparing meals, securing coal and wood for the fire, teaching kids their Latin and math, and sewing clothes and darning underwear. These scenes are well-researched and meticulously detailed, and they amount to a kind of Annales school of historical fiction that conveys an engrossing sense of life in its fullness in a distant time and culture. The resulting gusher of period lore, illuminating everything from the protocol of ferry travel to the procedural of printing presses, is spiced with a little bawdiness (the era’s typical four-to-a-bed sleeping arrangements make every tryst common knowledge) and some exciting adventures, including a transvestite prison break. With so much time, history, and theology to cover, Alley’s dialogue often bogs down in exposition—“The earliest beginnings of this nasty situation were easily traced back to the Hapsburg rule, Alva, Marguerite of Spain and the Spanish Inquisition”—but she also pens poetic passages: “Into the muted bird song and surrounding silence, the sound of one miniature bell, otherworldly and distant, began to call the hour of Vespers.” Mostly she writes workmanlike prose about ordinary people doing ordinary but vital things, deftly portraying both the richness and organic solidarity of life in the Old World and the precariousness and chafing restrictions that drove people to the New.

A vivid, absorbing tale of Europe painfully shaking off the shackles of the past.

Pub Date: June 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5391-6255-1

Page Count: 708

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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