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A vivid, slowly unfolding epic of disaster and survival in 16th-century America.

A novel delivers stark tales from storytellers who chronicle a vanished Arkansas tribe.

In the year Europeans called 1541, Taninto’s childhood is destroyed when a band of strangers cross the Mizzissibizzibbippi with weapons “that smoked like burning leaves and roared like thunder.” The Spanish conquistadors and their arquebuses cause chaos (this was an enemy who “killed without concern or hesitation, without ritual or purpose”), but the wave of diseases that follows wreaks even greater damage on the nations of the Nine-Rivers Valley. In his debut novel, Smith imagines a series of storytellers who evoke one another in their tales and, in doing so, describe the century that saw the last of 12 interconnected tribes, from the splendor of the temple city of Casqui to the “old and tired” land to which its survivors must retreat. Many years after the calamity, Manaha fights to relate her memories to a village that fears those recollections “will only bring the sickness again.” The stories she tells recount the life of the lost Palisema girl Nanza who—sick with smallpox and left for dead—finds herself rescued by an aged Taninto. In alternating chapters, three narratives unwind: the conquest Taninto witnesses, the flight Nanza endures, and the remembrances Manaha struggles to share. In the process, the history of a nearly forgotten people is imagined, or reimagined. Smith (The Great Turtle and the White Bird, 2013) writes fluidly, and the society he depicts is intriguingly complex. While some readers may wish for more direct evocation of the sensory details of that world (more smells, tastes, and sounds), others will be grateful for the short glimpse they’ve been given into a culture until now kept solely in the prison of the past. “A man without a story is one without a past,” Smith writes, “and a man without a past is one without wisdom.” By the time readers have wandered freely through the strange realm of the Storykeeper, they may well find those words more prophetic, and more powerful.   

A vivid, slowly unfolding epic of disaster and survival in 16th-century America.  

Pub Date: March 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4662-1297-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2016

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Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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