Often melodramatic, but Da Chen’s sweeping tale, reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s film To Live, successfully transports Chinese...

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BROTHERS

From Shaolin to the sugarloaf mountains of Gwangdong to Tiananmen Square and the skyscrapers of New York: an epic novel that neatly distills modern Chinese history.

It’s a staple conceit of martial-arts movies that brothers separated at birth will search for each other all their lives, only to fight to the death. Exiled Chinese novelist Da Chen (Colors of the Mountain, 2000, etc.) takes this stratagem and runs with it. The paterfamilias is a great general named Ding Long, a stalwart of Maoism. Stationed away from his family in South China, he sires a young son with a local woman. Ashamed, she leaps from a cliff and into legend. Young Shento’s adoptive parents are in turn massacred by Vietnamese, but not before he has been entrusted with the secret of his birth. Packed off to a military camp, he falls in love with the beautiful Sumi Wo. When events force them apart, Shento becomes a secret agent, assassin and presidential bodyguard, all the while nursing his hatred for his missing father—whose “real” family has been in turn blessed with every favor, including a brilliant son, Tan Long, who seems destined for great things in the new China. “Money will change this country, not Marxism,” Tan Long intones. “And then when we all have more money, life will be better and misery and hunger will be gone.” Of course, Tan Long’s path crosses Sumi Wo’s, both brothers thus tasting bittersweet love. Tan Long becomes a political prisoner, then exile, while Shento helps suppress China’s nascent democracy movement. Yet blood is blood, and Da Chen’s elegantly written novel ends on the promise of redemption and perhaps even reconciliation, as Shento realizes that “reality is often the antithesis of one’s dream.”

Often melodramatic, but Da Chen’s sweeping tale, reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s film To Live, successfully transports Chinese conventions into English to recount the agony of history.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-9728-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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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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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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