Sometimes more interesting for its revelation of little-known aspects of Cuban history than for its revelation of...

MONKEY HUNTING

García’s third (after The Aguero Sisters, 1997, etc.) again lyrically portrays several generations of a Cuban family, this one with Chinese roots.

In 1857, a Westerner in Amoy fools 20-year-old Chen Pan into signing on for indentured labor in Cuba, where “the women were eager and plentiful [and] . . . even the river fish jumped, unbidden, into frying pans.” After the horrific sea voyage disabuses him of such fantasies, Chen Pan survives more than two years on a sugar plantation, befriending some of the African slaves before escaping to Havana, where he prospers as a merchant and buys a young black woman who becomes his lifelong companion. Interwoven with the couple’s history are narratives about their granddaughter, Chen Fang, born in 1899 during her father’s brief sojourn in China, and their great-grandson, Domingo Chen, who immigrated to New York with his father in 1967. Chen Fang becomes a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Domingo falls in love with a prostitute while serving in Vietnam, but their stories are sketchy and pallid compared to the richness of Chen Pan’s experiences in Havana, a city with a multicultural vigor drawn from the clamor of different cultures and races. In 1867, in Havana, “the vendors hawked fresh okra and star apples, sugarplums, parakeets, and pigs’ feet . . . [and] from the moment he arrived, [Chen Pan] knew it was where he belonged.” His descendants in China and America never belong in the same way, and their tales are left unfinished, though the novel hints at sad ends. Chen Pan, by contrast, survives the loss of his beloved Lucrecia to see dramatic changes in now-independent Cuba, and he dies drinking the red wine a friend had promised would make him immortal.

Sometimes more interesting for its revelation of little-known aspects of Cuban history than for its revelation of characters, but Chen Pan lingers in the memory as a brooding, contemplative patriarch.

Pub Date: April 22, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-41056-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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

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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

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