Well-meaning but heavy-handed.

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IF YOU CROSS THE RIVER

Award-winning Belgian actress and playwright Damas' fablelike first novel tells the story of an illiterate teenager in a small village struggling with loneliness and a sense of not belonging.

Seventeen-year-old François Sorrente misses his beloved older sister, who crossed the eponymous river in defiance of their father years ago and never returned. His only friends are the pigs he spends his days tending on the family farm. His father and two brothers are brutish and uncommunicative; a third brother committed suicide by jumping off the roof. In spite of his self-isolating family, François strikes up a secret friendship with the village priest, finds a girlfriend, and eventually learns to read. He longs to discover what happened to his mother and also what lies across the river, where he has been sternly instructed never to go. François' life is startlingly bleak and his journey toward happiness, sympathetic. "For as long as I can remember I've felt that deep within I really am stupid and a simpleton, because the father tells me that, because my fingernails are black, I live among pigs, and my life is so small—how can your life be big when you don't know how to read and you don't know anything but your village?" But the fairy-tale quality of the story works against nuance or real surprise. Events unfold predictably. Of course the ruins of the burned-out buildings across the river hold the secret truth about our hero's origins! Of course the horrible father and brothers aren't really his blood relations! The moments of epiphany likewise fail to satisfy: "Suddenly I thought that life was beautiful...like something bloody that takes you by chance, that flays you, but that's how life is when you're at the heart of it, when something happens and it happens to you, then you can say that life is beautiful."

Well-meaning but heavy-handed.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-57131-120-7

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Milkweed

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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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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