Swift has fun with language, with class conventions, and with narrative expectations in a novel where nothing is as simple...

MOTHERING SUNDAY

In England of 1924, a maid who knows her affair with an estate owner’s son must end moves through that last day with sly humor and sensual detail.

Swift (England and Other Stories, 2015, etc.) subtitles this slim novel “A Romance” and begins it like a fairy tale, with the words “Once upon a time.” It’s the first of numerous ironies. Narrated in the third person from the point of view and stream of consciousness of housemaid Jane Fairchild, 22, the story moves through the closing hours of her affair with Paul Sheringham, 23, the only remaining child of parents who lost their two other boys during World War I. It's Mothering Sunday, when domestics traditionally visit their mothers. Not only is the help vacating the Sheringham premises, but Paul’s parents are away on a lunch outing. Many languorous post-coital pages describe how Paul moves naked about his bedroom, how he and Jane share a cigarette in bed, and finally his getting up and dressed and on the road to meet with the woman he is to marry in two weeks. Then come many equally unhurried pages in which Jane wanders naked around the empty house. The one-day time frame is broken by flashbacks to her days as an orphan, her coming into service, and aspects of life above and below stairs. The narrator also steps in to share with the reader things Jane doesn’t yet know: that she will die at 98 after a career as a famous novelist and that Paul, for reasons only a spoiler would reveal, will never marry. Jane is a marvelous creation who can seem wry, world-weary, innocent, or lusty, bringing to mind Molly Bloom.

Swift has fun with language, with class conventions, and with narrative expectations in a novel where nothing is as simple or obvious as it seems at first.

Pub Date: April 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94752-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2016

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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