Nors is an exquisitely precise writer, and in rendering her heroine’s small disruptions and, yes, victories, she is writing...

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MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL

In this tautly observed novel, Nors reveals a middle-age woman on the verge of disappearance and discovery.

Danish writer Nors is a miniaturist; her book So Much for That Winter (2016) gathers two novellas that read like collections of epigrams, while her story collection Karate Chop (2014) brings together 15 microfictions, each imbued with an uneasy sense of loss. In this, the first of her four novels to be translated into English, she follows up on and enlarges these concerns. The story of Sonja, 40-something, a translator of Swedish crime fiction, the book unfolds in and around Copenhagen, but its true territory is the inner life. Sonja is stuck: bored of translation work, envious (but not really) of her sister who appears to have it all. She is learning to drive—the title is a reference to her instructor’s admonition about changing lanes in traffic—and she also suffers from positional vertigo, an inherited condition in which she can fall prey to dizziness simply by the wrong movement of her head. In part, all this is metaphor, a way to frame Sonja’s displacement. She is anonymous, much like the women Nors describes in her essay “On the Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women” (2016). At the same time, Nors is after something bigger than mere symbol; she is trying to excavate the pattern of a life. “But it doesn’t matter,” Sonja says late in the novel. “I manage, of course.” The line, in many ways, is key to the novel, which makes vivid drama out of the most mundane events. Not much happens here—some awkward interactions with her driving teachers, a couple of massages, some letters and phone calls with her family—but not much has to, for the drama Nors excavates is the most human one. What does it mean to keep on living? What does it mean to make a place for oneself, no matter how small or conditional? “A person who has her hand on the back of your heart,” Sonja reminds us, “shouldn’t be unsure.”

Nors is an exquisitely precise writer, and in rendering her heroine’s small disruptions and, yes, victories, she is writing for, and of, every one of us.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-55597-808-2

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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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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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

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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