Even so, Sleigh crafts a monumental tale about momentous events on the edge of the known world, an effort resulting in a...

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ISLANDS

A sprawling historical charts the 1650 arrival of the Dutch in what is now South Africa and limns the troubles that followed.

Real-life figures stand at the heart of South African National Archives researcher Sleigh’s first outing, reputed to have been two decades and more in the making. Early on, one of those figures, Jan van Riebeeck, arrives at Cape Town as colonial governor for the Dutch East India Company and loses little time in transforming the native landscape while dreaming of better things to come: “Where this Fort is standing now, will be a big town one day.” His native opposite, also real, is the Goringhaicona leader Autshumao, known as Chief Harry to the English (and Herrie to the Dutch). Even once Herrie accepts the notion that there will always be Hollanders on his territory, and that “the whole world would be made different,” he is a most reluctant ally: He’d rather be speaking English, the only thing he has to barter. But the Dutch do business otherwise, and they soon war on the native peoples. Newcomers and indigenes die, and Herrie becomes the first prisoner on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela would later spend so many years. In turn, van Riebeeck adopts a Goringhaicona girl, the resonantly named Eva, mother of the colony’s first mixed-blood, a girl whom many love but few know. Sleigh’s ambitious tale, which weaves the lives of seven major characters and many minor ones into a packed and occasionally even crowded narrative, is far better written than the standard textbook, but it sometimes has a textbookish feel all the same; a reader without some knowledge of the South African past and an ability to keep track of Sleigh’s detailed subplots about the fates of doomed warriors and pensive women may soon feel lost.

Even so, Sleigh crafts a monumental tale about momentous events on the edge of the known world, an effort resulting in a major contribution to modern South African literature.

Pub Date: April 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-15-101115-X

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2004

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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 love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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