A little slow to start, but readers who give themselves over to its unhurried rhythms will be rewarded: a full-bodied tale...

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LIFE MASK

Donoghue’s latest, another fabulously entertaining historical (Slammerkin, 2001, etc.), illuminates three intertwined 18th-century lives.

Eliza Farren has carved a place for herself in London’s beau monde,thanks to the brilliance of her comic performances at the Drury Lane Theatre, the love of the Earl of Derby, and the resolute virtue that keeps her from becoming the married earl’s mistress. Eliza begins a warm friendship with the widowed Anne Damer, who takes advantage of her aristocratic background and financial independence to pursue her art as a sculptor. Anne and Derby, both firm Whigs, spark Eliza’s interest in politics, and she too becomes an adherent of the party that opposes the policies of George III’s autocratic prime minister, William Pitt. The Whigs’s generous, ramshackle leader Charles Fox, unscrupulous yet charming Drury Lane manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and witty, garrulous literary man Horace Walpole (Anne’s godfather) are among the historical figures who come to brilliant fictional life as the narrative unfolds at a leisurely pace over the stormy decade 1787–97. Donoghue does equally well with her three protagonists, also fleshed-out from real-life personalities. Derby and Anne are appealing, genuinely liberal people who nonetheless would never dream of giving up their inherited privilege. Eliza, who depends on the public favor, is necessarily more calculating: she renounces Anne when rumors of her friend’s “Sapphist” tendencies endanger her livelihood, and she keeps Derby at a platonic arm’s length until his invalid wife dies and they can marry at the close. The author explores her characters inner lives in the context of rich details about 18th-century theater, the brutal hypocrisy of aristocratic society, and the ferocious debate over the British government’s repressive policies at home in response to the excesses of the French Revolution abroad. Donoghue underscores contemporary relevance with untypical clumsiness through anachronistic references to “weapons of mass destruction” and “homeland security”; in general, her touch is light but probing as she guides her characters toward the middle-aged wisdom that “everybody wears a mask . . . to persuade ourselves as much as others.”

A little slow to start, but readers who give themselves over to its unhurried rhythms will be rewarded: a full-bodied tale that satisfies the head and the heart.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-15-100943-0

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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