BRIGHT AND DISTANT SHORES

Written with extraordinary literary grace, Smith’s (The Beautiful Miscellaneous, 2007, etc.) third novel gleams as a gem of evocative historical fiction.

Owen Graves, orphaned at 13, is the son of a Chicago demolition expert, a youngster enthralled by the artifacts gleaned from wreckage as he worked alongside his father. As the 20th century nears, young Owen is freed from an orphanage but unsure of his future. His love for relics of the past inspires a voyage to Melanesia, where he trades for primitive art and weapons. His success brings him to the attention of Hale Gray, president of an insurance company. Having constructed the tallest skyscraper in Chicago, Gray is ready to underwrite a trading voyage. He wants to decorate the headquarters with South Sea treasures, as a sales tool and as a comeuppance to his neighbor, the retailer Marshall Field, sponsor of the new Field Museum. Owen sees the expedition as a way to secure his future, but there are problems. Owen has fallen in love with Adelaide Cummings, daughter of a wealthy Bostonian, and Gray wants Owen to return with natives to be exhibited. This troubles Owen’s instinctual ethics, and he knows importing natives for exhibit will fracture his relationship with Adelaide, a woman deeply involved with charity work at Hull House. Another complication is Gray’s insistence that his unstable son Jethro, a dilettante naturalist, accompany the trader. Smith expands the narrative to include Argus Niu and his sister, Malini, siblings from an island near New Guinea. Argus failed as a warrior and was sent to work as a houseboy for a Presbyterian missionary. Malini married into another tribe but was widowed. Smith’s dexterity in limning out Argus and Malini is masterful, and that skill extends to the expedition ship’s captain, its sailors and the milieu of sailing life, island culture abraded by modernity and bustling streets of 1890s Chicago. 

Beautifully researched and ripe with symbolism—an enthralling narrative peopled by characters both exotic and real.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4391-9886-5

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Washington Square/Pocket

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2011

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more