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SISTERS

A subtle book that brings to bear all its author’s prodigious skill. A must-read.

A mother and her two teenage daughters relocate to a remote cottage by the sea for a fresh start only to discover that what they’ve brought with them may be worse than what they left behind.

Sisters September and July are unusually close. Less than a year apart in age, the girls share a language of preferences, games, sometimes even thoughts that makes their mother, Sheela, feel excluded and that causes their teachers to categorize them as “isolated, uninterested, conjoined, young for their age, sometimes moved to great cruelty.” The children’s father, Peter, is dead, drowned in a hotel pool while on vacation, but the memory of his capricious cruelty haunts Sheela and taints her enjoyment of her oldest daughter, September, who strongly resembles him. Nevertheless, the family makes a life together in Oxford, where their mother writes and illustrates children’s books featuring the girls’ fictional adventures. Then, something dreadful happens, something so awful that July can’t remember what exactly it was, and they flee to Settle House, the cottage where their father was conceived and September was born, high on the North York Moors by the sea. Once there, the girls are left on their own while Sheela locks herself in her room, emerging only sometimes at night to cook meals, which she leaves for them to eat by themselves. Isolated by the lonely moors that surround them and by their mother’s near abandonment, which the girls take as anger over what happened in Oxford, September and July’s already claustrophobic relationship becomes something verging on a possession as July’s identity is slowly sublimated under the more dominant personality of her sister and the smothering nature of the house itself. When the instigating event that caused them to leave Oxford finally comes to light, it does so with an incandescence that reilluminates everything that has come before; what the reader and July herself should have seen all along, if only we had known how to look. Johnson—whose first novel, Everything Under (2018), made her the youngest author ever shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—brings her nuanced sense of menace and intimate understanding of the perils of loving too much to this latest entry in her developing canon of dark places where the unspeakable speaks and speaks.  

A subtle book that brings to bear all its author’s prodigious skill. A must-read.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-18895-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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