Ever unpredictable, Lessing now offers a rather cryptic yet uncommonly accessible tale of psycho-social horror: a variation on the classic "changeling" formula—here marbled, subtly and disturbingly, with such Lessing themes as apocalyptic doom, the rough dignity of society's outcasts, and the dark underside of human nature. (The five-novel "Martha Quest" series, Lessing readers will remember, is called Children of Violence.) In the 1960's, that "greedy and selfish" time of alienation and "bad news from everywhere," young architect David (terribly old-fashioned) meets solid, homey Harriet (a grownup virgin)—and soon they're a couple, blissful and confident in their sharing of all the traditional, "unfashionable" values. They buy a big house (with help from David's wealthy father), joyfully begin having babies (they want at least seven or eight), and become the happy center of rich, extended family life, continually visited by assorted in-laws. Circa 1972, they're relieved and grateful: "they had chosen, and so obstinately, the best—this." With Harriet's fifth pregnancy, however, this idyll (quickly, hypnotically sketched) begins to fall under a sickly, expanding, implacable shadow. The expectant mother is tormented by the fierce, unnaturally strong fetus. When born, baby Ben is heavy, muscular, creepy-looking—"like a troll, or a goblin or something"—and violent. As a child, he's hostile, unteachable, "neanderthal"dike, more dangerously violent (he kills a dog, then turns to humans) with each passing year. The family is splintered, cruelly transformed—by fear, shame, and furious sorrow (especially vulnerable little Paul). Eventually, urged on by David and flinty Grandma Dorothy, Harriet agrees to give Ben over to "one of those places that exist in order to take on children families simply want to get rid of." But, in a truly nightmarish sequence, the mother reclaims her unlovable horror-child from a death-ward for the unwanted. And, through sheer willpower and ruthless shrewdness, Harriet manages a sort of coexistence between the family (forever fractured) and the "throwback"—though the teen-age Ben inevitably takes off to roam the earth with the punks and outlaws who accept him. "Perhaps quite soon. . . she would be looking at the box, and there, in a shot of the News of Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind." As a symbolic summing-up of the past three decades, from Sixties cataclysm to Eighties terrorism, this short novel is vaguely provocative at best; the even broader, socio-anthropological subtext—civilized, familial mankind forced to confront the primitive animal within—is only slightly more persuasive. But, despite echoes of pop-fiction (Rosemary's Baby, etc.) and TV-movie case-histories (damaged child, valiant mum), the plain story itself—fine-tuned with ordinary-life details yet also insidiously fable-like—is stark, relentless, and memorably harrowing.

Pub Date: March 25, 1988

ISBN: 0679721827

Page Count: 148

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1988

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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