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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    finalist

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

  • National Book Award Winner

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

Google Rating

  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

  • National Book Award Finalist

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

Did you like this book?

more