Only the clumsily handled serial killer subplot and a depressingly tidy climax mar a sparkly and entertaining debut.

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A richly comic first novel about a British journalist, in her late 20s, who is just getting over the sudden death of her mother, an event both more and less traumatic than one would imagine.

Determined to plow on with life, Tansy thinks about how to dress for the funeral—“I enjoyed the bimbo widow look”—and what to do with the £50,000 she’s just inherited. She and boyfriend Tom decide to take a tour of Southeast Asia, a plan that falls apart when Tom splits up with her. After a days-long bacchanal of dinners, drugs and drink, Tansy jets off alone for Vietnam. Used to her urban Soho apartment and the easy accessibility of designer clothing and drugs (cocaine’s her favorite), it takes her some time to get the hang of things there. But soon she’s met up with a group of Australian “backpackers”—a term Tansy furiously refuses to apply to herself—and started to enjoy her new life. Dropped clunkily into this breezy narrative is a subplot about a maniac killer of blond backpackers in Asia, a fact that doesn’t worry blond Tansy as much as it does the people she e-mails back home. Bit by bit, she surprises herself by befriending people she wouldn’t have associated with in London and even finding a new boyfriend, far and away more caring than Tom ever was. Tansy’s easy elitism makes for hilarious telling; and though her moods and lifelong convictions seem to change in a minute, Barr’s intimate knowledge of Tansy’s character—she herself is a British journalist (London's Observer, The Guardian) who spent a year travelling in Asia—makes all come off not as Bridget Jones-esque flightiness but just as the ever-churning mind of a bright and rebellious woman in flux.

Only the clumsily handled serial killer subplot and a depressingly tidy climax mar a sparkly and entertaining debut.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-452-28293-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Plume

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2001

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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