A dark parable, powerful yet baffling.

THE CLEFT

One of postcolonial fiction’s brightest lights makes mythic the battle of the sexes.

It’s men vs. women. Or, less subtly, “Monsters” vs. “Clefts.” Lessing (The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, 2005, etc.), manufacturing a legend out of prose somewhere between grunting and incantation, imagines pre-history. As if commenting on ancient lore, a Roman senator tells of “the Cleft where the red flowers grow,” a Shangri-La soon to turn oppressive that’s peopled only by moon-worshipping women bearing the name of their land. One day, on this isle of Fish Skin Curers, Seaweed Collectors and Old Shes, a virgin birth produces a Monster, complete with a “tube” below his navel and nipples that “aren’t good for anything.” As in old Greece, unwanted babies are exposed to the elements on the Cleft, and even while the Clefts insist that “there is no record of any of us doing cruel things—not until the Monsters were born,” they leave most of the Monsters out to die or castrate them. Except Maire, who instinctively mates with one of the surviving Monsters grown to adulthood (they’re then dubbed “Squirts”). In time, more Cleft-Squirt copulation ensues (they do it fast, Lessing says, like birds). The Squirt offspring are pretty much dunderheads who “did not understand that if they did this, then that would follow,” but they’re resourceful, making fire and suckling female deer when their Cleft mothers abandon them. After a while, in this anti-Genesis, an alternative Adam and Eve rise up: Horsa and Maronna. Like all Clefts, who “always talked down to the men, chiding and scolding,” Maronna rules the roost; Horsa explores. But just as he seems about to venture toward some new wonderland and Clefts and Monsters achieve some kind of acceptance, the Cleft, like Vesuvius, explodes.

A dark parable, powerful yet baffling.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-06-083486-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2007

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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