LOSING BATTLES

Miss Welty's South, the hill country of Northeast Mississippi, is once again like its catalpa trees in full bloom. On the first page, the marvelous descriptive power which carries so much of her writing makes itself felt—"Then a house appeared on its ridge, like an old man's silver watch pulled once more out of its pocket." This is her first book in some fifteen years; a writer of short stories and shorter novels, this is her first attempt to transpose the minor work of art into a major achievement and one of its losing battles may well be its length, testing the patience of those outside the cult. Here and there, during this mighty get-together, the reunion of a family on the 90th birthday (she says 100th) of Granny Vaughn, some of it runs to grass. It's the occasion when Granny expects to "see all the great-great-grandchildren they care to show me" along with her clutch of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Granny's mind sometimes slips, and well through this memorable day she's asking for her presents; they're all around her—a prayer plant or a new apron or a sodabox full of sage. The day is also remarkable in that after two years, one of the great-grandchildren, Jack, is being released from the pen—to join them and his wife and his baby (although for a time it seems he might lose them both to a lurching car—an episode which with its retrieval is one of the many comic scenes). He's not the kind to give up; nor is his wife Gloria (who grew up an orphan never knowing who was her father) nor is the former schoolteacher of Banner who attempted to block their marriage. She was the most embattled of them all. . . . Miss Welty once defined the novel as "reflections and visions of all life we know compounded through art." Along with her blood knowledge of the South which has earned those many comparisons with Faulkner, there is her cosmic vision—part innocence, part forgiveness ("the besetting sin" in this house), part comedy, an ever-flowing affection for all that walks and crawls and creeps, and in conjunction with the homemade pleasures, the more mysterious penultimates. They're all here.

Pub Date: April 13, 1970

ISBN: 0679728821

Page Count: 458

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1970

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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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