An unusual tale, a bit reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry. Initially forbidding, ultimately very rewarding indeed.

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THE ART AND PRACTICE OF EXPLOSION

A dense tapestry of memory engulfs and all but smothers the three enigmatic protagonists of Michelsen’s demanding third (after Hard Bottom, 2001, etc.).

The story begins ominously with the image of a wrecked train, then shifts to Paris, where a weekend trip to the countryside of Alsace is undertaken by old acquaintances Eva Koszegfalvi (a Hungarian research psychiatrist), Ludovic Rohan (a marine archeologist turned underwater cinematographer), and American Frank Duggan (international aid worker, arms smuggler, and now teacher specializing in “the politics of aid and development”). The trio had met 12 years earlier, when they were held hostage by native Indians rebelling against the corrupt government of the Central American republic of Xelaju (which seems to be more or less Mexico). Michelsen juxtaposes the progress of their (somewhat wary) reunion with detailed flashbacks from each one’s point of view. Frank’s stunted amorality is revealed as an offshoot of his disillusioning involvement with Rhode Island labor and political corruption and his initially idealistic collusion with guerrilla warfare. “Ludo’s” passion for diving and salvaging ironically expresses grief for his dead sister and for missed romantic opportunities. And Eva’s professional investigations into the phenomenon of memory are compromised by constantly resurfacing shards of her family’s history of wartime suffering and signs of her own vulnerability and mortality. The narrative’s backward and forward plunges are both involving and baffling, but Michelsen makes all the necessary linkages, and deepens the novel’s texture impressively with vignettes of WWI battlefield experiences of Ludo’s fallen great-grandfather and thematically telling excerpts from the work of suicidal Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef. The potent theme of both the permanence and the elusiveness of what is past but not gone is also provocatively linked to the thought of medieval theologian John Duns Scotus.

An unusual tale, a bit reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry. Initially forbidding, ultimately very rewarding indeed.

Pub Date: June 30, 2003

ISBN: 1-58465-308-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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