Unsatisfying as a novel, but the observations are piquant enough to make for an enjoyable read.

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI

Part novel, part cultural travelogue, this latest from the British critic and novelist (The Ongoing Moment, 2005, etc.) consists of two sections, linked by the narrator’s sensibility.

Jeff Atman is on his way to Venice. The 45-year-old Londoner, a freelance journalist, has been assigned to cover the 2003 Biennale for an arts magazine. Narrator Jeff is not a big player in the art world, though he’s a familiar face on the circuit as he pursues his favorite things: drinking, drugs, parties and hitting on younger women (he’s divorced). The Biennale provides “magical excess.” The parties are nonstop; the bellinis flow and the cocaine glistens. At his first party Jeff meets the absolutely must-have girl. Laura Freeman, early 30s, is about to quit her gallery job in Los Angeles to do a grand tour of the East, including Varanasi (Benares). It’s not long before they’re having terrific sex and strolling the streets like lovers. Dyer’s dialogue is dead-on, but Laura doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s not all sex and parties though. Jeff comments provocatively on the city and the artwork before the lovers part, promising to e-mail. Then we’re launched into the second, less novelistic, section. Jeff’s latest assignment has brought him to, you guessed it, Varanasi. This holiest of Indian cities is the main character here. Jeff deals with the traffic and the unending demands for rupees as he explores the temples and the funeral pyres by the Ganges. But what about Laura? Gone with the wind, evidently, for she’s never mentioned again, a disappointment for readers expecting continuity. Jeff enjoys his new life of idleness, going native, wearing a loincloth and bathing in the Ganges. A more conventional treatment would signal a midlife crisis and breakdown. Instead, with playful nonchalance, Jeff fades slowly from view, like the Cheshire Cat.

Unsatisfying as a novel, but the observations are piquant enough to make for an enjoyable read.

Pub Date: April 14, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-37737-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2009

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    finalist

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

  • National Book Award Winner

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

more