Strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer’s ambition and...

THE TWELVE-MILE STRAIGHT

The births of two babies and the consequent lynching of a black man launch Henderson’s (Ten Thousand Saints, 2011) grim investigation into the fractures of race, class, and family in rural Georgia.

Pink little Winnafred and brown Wilson are born in the summer of 1930, allegedly the twin offspring of 18-year-old Elma Jesup, whose father, Juke, accuses field hand Genus Jackson of raping her. Elma reluctantly confirms this, and her fiance, Freddie Wilson, helps Juke string up Genus and then skips town. Wealthy George Wilson is furious with Juke for letting his grandson take the blame—not that anyone wants to bring the lynchers to justice—and is suspicious about these “Gemini twins.” Indeed, we hear very soon that Wilson was fathered by Juke with Nan, the Jesups’ 14-year-old African-American servant. Juke forces the two girls into this absurd deception for reasons that are somewhat obscure until Henderson's tangled saga has unreeled a good deal farther into the year 1931 and back into a past that includes abuse and violence galore. The details are baroque but appropriate to the epically unjust society scathingly depicted. The reign of terror under which African-Americans live takes perhaps its most appalling form in the stories of Nan and her mother, both forced into long-term sexual subjugation by white men, but Elma and the white girls who work at George Wilson’s cotton mill are hardly better off. Juke, in Henderson’s most multifaceted and terrifying portrait, clings to the prerogatives of race and gender to hide from himself the fact that he’s just trash in the eyes of men like George Wilson, who hold the real power in the South. Despite Henderson’s evident compassion for her characters, she gives them hardly a moment of grace from the dark opening to the brutal denouement, which makes the tentatively hopeful epilogue somewhat difficult to credit.

Strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer’s ambition and grit.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-242208-8

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2017

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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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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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