BREATH AND SHADOWS

An enthralling generational novel, the first in ten years from this Danish-American author (The Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1990, etc.), vividly reflects both the contemporary interest in researching family history and the haunting reconstructions of the past that distinguish the popular fiction of Denmark’s Peter H—eg. But Leffland’s rich novel is an impressively original work: a dark tapestry woven from the histories of a family’s several generations seen on crucial occasions that are separated by two centuries. In the approximate present day, middle-aged siblings Paula and Philip shake off their solipsism—he’s a weary, thrice-divorced American businessman, she a would-be sculptor living alone in the Swiss Jura Mountains—to seek information about the father (—the engineer—) they scarcely knew. A century earlier, their Danish grandparents, wealthy Holger and Grethe Rosted, blissfully indulge their mutual passion and separate avocations (he paints, she translates Zola)—until an overmastering sorrow for the victims of the modern age’s European wars (her grandfather, most specifically, who died young at the battle of Leipzig) awakens in Grethe the strain of madness that afflicts her family. Its source is found in the story of Grethe’s great-grandfather Thorkild, a dwarfish “Counselor” (onetime “financial advisor to the king”) whose intemperate rages and inexhaustible vitality together propel him on an odyssey to postwar Germany to seek and, in a series of brilliantly staged hallucinations, find the only human he has ever loved: his dead son. Excepting Philip, whose midlife crisis is, simply, dull, Leffland’s several protagonists emerge with stunning clarity, thanks largely to a simple, ingenious narrative device: they’re shown from the partially comprehending viewpoints of minor figures (including Grethe’s beloved housecat Olaf) who only incidentally cross their paths. The pages that convey Counselor Thorkild’s mingled hatred for “the rot that is humanity!” and instinctual lust for life vibrate with emotional force and psychological complexity. He’s an amazing creation in this, Leffland’s best novel yet.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-688-14271-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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THE PRINCE OF TIDES

A NOVEL

A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

HOUSE OF LEAVES

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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