Though its suppression of emotion seems a bit studied, this is nonetheless an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving...

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S.S. PROLETERKA

Death and alienation hover like menacing theme music over the elliptical scenes that compose this disturbing 2001 novel by Italian author Jaeggy (Sweet Days of Discipline, 1993, etc.).

In a flat affectless narration that careens between numerous past and present scenes, as well as first- and third-person address, Jaeggy’s unnamed narrator focuses on a voyage from Vienna to the Greek Islands and back, undertaken with her widowed German father Johannes. During that voyage—on the Yugoslavian vessel Proleterka (meaning “The proletarian Lass”)—the narrator, who is 15 and has almost from birth been starved for human contact, becomes the willing sexual partner of any crewman who wants her (“By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything”). In skillfully juxtaposed memory scenes, Jaeggy fills in details of Johannes’s financial crises (after his twin brother’s terminal illness forces his formerly wealthy family to sell its textile factory), disastrous marriage, and ostracism from his young daughter by his late wife’s flinty Italian mother Orsola and her secret-riddled family. The narrator’s own feelings emerge from potent surreal memories (e.g., of her mother’s piano as an eerie threatening presence), brisk rejections of emotion and connection (“Parents are not necessary”), and wary characterizations of unknowable people glancingly encountered, on shipboard and in the “ruins” (implicitly compared to sites visited by the ship’s passengers) of her father’s half-buried, submissive life. The novel takes a surprising turn, long after Johannes’s death, when the now-middle-aged narrator is contacted by a moribund elderly man who claims he is her father, and offers her an alternative life (which ironically echoes the losses and sorrows that have made her the remote, stoical woman she is).

Though its suppression of emotion seems a bit studied, this is nonetheless an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving study of innocence destroyed and love denied. Very accomplished indeed.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2003

ISBN: 0-8112-1550-4

Page Count: 144

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2003

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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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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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