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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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