A fascinating, provocative, sometimes frustrating read; the stylistic tics may grow tiresome but Murnane’s intriguing ideas...

BORDER DISTRICTS

A FICTION

An old man ruminates on landscapes and houses, authors and religion, colored glass and memory in this drifting quasi-fiction.

The unnamed narrator, age 72, has recently moved from a city to live alone in a “quiet township” near an unspecified border in an unnamed country. In the opening pages, he recalls his school days and the religious brothers who taught him. The colored glass in a church window sparks memories of a book that describes men during the Commonwealth period in the 17th century smashing the stained-glass windows of churches in England. A partial picture of the narrator emerges with references to teaching, marriage, children, relatives, and childhood horse-racing interests. But there’s little ongoing narrative, just vignettes scattered among musings on visual perception and recollections of houses, books, and colored glass. The preoccupations with how one has seen the world and with memory suit an older man and a writer; the prose, with its precision, repetition, and verbal footnotes, smacks of an academic lecturer. Despite the subtitle, the narrator insists he is “not writing a work of fiction” but recording a “sequence of images,” or “a chain of thoughts.” The chain in one 12-page stretch includes a Proust allusion, a book jacket’s author photo, childhood marbles, a kaleidoscope bought in Virginia, the colored glass in kaleidoscopes, 120 colored pencils, and marbles on a carpet which the narrator moves in the hope that a chance arrangement “would restore to me some previously irretrievable mood.” In search of lost marbles? No, the narrator is utterly rational. The sui generis Australian writer Murnane (The Plains, 2017, etc.) is at least eccentric. He seems to be showing how a writer’s mind works when he is writing and when he is riffling through or riffing on vision, insight, and memories.

A fascinating, provocative, sometimes frustrating read; the stylistic tics may grow tiresome but Murnane’s intriguing ideas and oblique angles rarely do.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-11575-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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