It’s more than coincidence that the novel features two sets of relatives whose blood ties are once removed, for the family...



Within the current political climate, the reader might expect a new novel about the war in Vietnam to provide a metaphor for Iraq. Yet Denis Johnson has bigger whales to land in his longest and most ambitious work to date. Tree of Smoke is less concerned with any individual war than with the nature of war, and with the essence of war novels. There are echoes here of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (particularly as transformed by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, yet Johnson’s achievement suggests that each generation gets the war—and the war novel—it deserves.

At the center of Johnson’s epic sprawl is Colonel Francis Sands, the novel’s Captain Ahab, a character of profound, obsessive complexity and contradiction. Is he visionary or madman, patriot or traitor? Dead or alive? Or, somehow, all of the above? Because the reader perceives the Colonel (as he is reverently known) through the eyes of other characters, he shimmers like a kaleidoscope of shifting impressions. His military involvement in Asia preceded Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and he has continued to operate as a CIA agent within the shadows of Vietnam, while perhaps answering to no authority higher than his own.
From World War II through the war in Vietnam, much has changed—allegiances and alliances, public sentiment, the modes of modern warfare. Yet the Colonel hasn’t—he won’t or he can’t. Though he is plainly the novel’s pivotal figure, Johnson spends more time inside the psyche of the Colonel’s nephew, William “Skip” Sands, whose father died in action and whose enlistment extends a family tradition. He’s as naïve as the Colonel is worldly, as filled with self-doubt as his uncle is free of it, but he ultimately joins his relative in psychological operations against the enemy—whomever that may be. Eventually, he must decide whether it is possible to serve both his legendary relative and his country. 
A less engaging subplot concerns half-brothers Bill and James Houston, who enter the war as teenagers to escape their dead-end lives in Arizona. Where the Sands family operates on the periphery of the war, the Houstons are deep in the muck of it. Though they are what once might have been called cannon fodder, the war gives their lives definition and a sense of mission, of destiny, that is missing back home—which will never again feel like home after Vietnam.

It’s more than coincidence that the novel features two sets of relatives whose blood ties are once removed, for the family that one chooses is ultimately more important than the family into which one happens to be born. Thus it is all the more imperative to choose wisely—and all the more difficult, given the duplicity that the war seems to require for self-preservation. As the novel obliterates all distinctions between good and evil, allies and enemies, loyalty and betrayal, it sustains the suspense of who will survive long enough to have the last word.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-27912-7

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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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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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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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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