DOWN BY THE RIVER

Expatriate Irish writer O'Brien (House of Splendid Isolation, 1994, etc.) offers one of the most ferocious indictments of Gaelic life and culture since The Playboy of the Western World. The case several years ago of an Irish girl who was barred by judicial decree from leaving the country to procure an abortion was bound to work its way into fiction, and O'Brien was probably the likeliest to pick it up. She adds a particularly nasty twist to the already-repugnant scenario by making 14-year-old Mary MacNamara not merely the victim of rape but of incest as well, impregnated by her father not long after Mrs. MacNamara's funeral. Ashamed and unwilling to reveal the true circumstances of her case, Mary becomes the pawn in a monstrous political game played out across the pulpits, newsrooms, and Foreign Offices of the British Isles. A kindly neighbor who takes her secretly to London is threatened with arrest and reluctantly brings the girl home, where she is kept virtually imprisoned to prevent her from terminating either her pregnancy or her life. She manages to escape into the hands of the liberals, but they have an agenda of their own, seeing in her the perfect candidate for a Supreme Court case—a case that cannot possibly be settled in time for an abortion. As the wheels of justice grind slowly, Mary becomes increasingly depressed and exhausted. The panorama of characters who wander into and around the controversy—including judges, journalists, schoolgirls, transvestites, and madwomen—give a rich background to the story, but the book's angry impact is diminished through its having been inspired by a case that was dramatic in its own right and through a presentation that is relentlessly partisan. If hard cases make bad law, it must be added that they can make pretty poor literature as well. O'Brien's propagandistic tone and two-dimensional characterizations will bring her few if any new admirers.

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-374-14327-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1997

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This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous...

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  • Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Winner

  • National Book Award Finalist

THE LEAVERS

A Chinese woman who works in a New York nail salon doesn’t come home one day; her young son is raised by well-meaning strangers who cannot heal his broken heart.

We meet Bronx fifth-grader Deming Guo on the day his mother disappears without a trace. From there, the story moves both forward and backward, intercutting between the narrative of his bumpy path to adulthood and his mother’s testimony. Gradually the picture comes together—Deming was conceived in China and born in America because his unmarried mother, Peilan, decided she would rather borrow the $50,000 to be smuggled to America than live out her life in her rural village. After her baby is born she tries to hide him underneath her sewing machine at work, but clearly she cannot care for him and work enough to repay the loan shark. She sends him back to China to be raised by her aging father. When Deming is 6, Yi Ba dies, and the boy rejoins his mother, who now has a boyfriend and lives with him; his sister, Vivian; and her son, Michael. After Peilan disappears, Deming is shuffled into foster care—his new parents are a pair of white academics upstate. Ten years later, it is Michael who tracks down a college dropout with a gambling problem named Daniel Wilkinson and sends a message that, if he is Deming Guo, he has information about his mother. The twists and turns continue, with the answers about Peilan’s disappearance withheld until the final pages. Daniel’s involvement in the alternative music scene is painted in unnecessary detail, but otherwise the specificity of the intertwined stories is the novel’s strength. Ko’s debut is the winner of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Fiction for a novel that addresses issues of social justice, chosen by Barbara Kingsolver.

This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.

Pub Date: May 2, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61620-688-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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A lovely, painful book: Walker's finest work yet.

THE COLOR PURPLE

Walker (In Love and Trouble, Meridian) has set herself the task of an epistolary novel—and she scores strongly with it.

The time is in the Thirties; a young, black, Southern woman named Celie is the primary correspondent (God being her usual addressee); and the life described in her letters is one of almost impossible grimness. While young, Celie is raped by a stepfather. (Even worse, she believes him to be her real father.) She's made to bear two children that are then taken away from her. She's married off without her consent to an older man, Albert, who'd rather have Celie's sister Nettie—and, by sacrificing her body to Albert without love or feeling, Celie saves her sister, making it possible for her to escape: soon Nettle goes to Africa to work as a Christian missionary. Eventually, then, halfway through the book, as Celie's sub-literate dialect letters to God continue to mount (eventually achieving the naturalness and intensity of music, equal in beauty to Eudora Welty's early dialect stories), letters from Nettie in Africa begin to arrive. But Celie doesn't see them—because Albert holds them back from her. And it's only when Celie finds an unlikely redeemer—Albert's blues-singer lover Shug Avery—that her isolation ends: Shug takes Celie under her wing, becomes Celie's lover as well as Albert's; Shug's strength and expansiveness and wisdom finally free up Nettie's letters—thus granting poor Celie a tangible life in the now (Shug's love, encouragement) as well as a family life, a past (Nettie's letters). Walker fashions this book beautifully—with each of Celie's letters slowly adding to her independence (the implicit feminism won't surprise Walker's readers), with each letter deepening the rich, almost folk-tale-ish sense of story here. And, like an inverted pyramid, the novel thus builds itself up broadeningly while balanced on the frailest imaginable single point: the indestructibility—and battered-ness—of love.

A lovely, painful book: Walker's finest work yet.

Pub Date: June 28, 1982

ISBN: 0151191549

Page Count: 316

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1982

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