THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY

An ambitious novel, set along the US-Canadian border and in Hollywood, that won for its author (Homesick, 1990, etc.) Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award. The story consists of parallel narratives, the first taking place in 1873 when a band of ``wolfers'' (wolf-hunters) camped in the northern Montana Territory lose their horses to a furtive Indian raiding party. A determined posse pursues the thieves northward into Saskatchewan, where a terrible vengeance is exacted. Among those avengers are the mysterious title character, a stoical drifter who will become both the victim and nemesis of the men with whom he has cast his lot, and Shorty McAdoo, a Scotsman who will forever after be burdened by his failure to act as the ``civilized man'' he believed he was. The second narrative, set in 1923, recounts in his own words the ordeal undergone by Harry Vincent, a crippled journalist employed by playboy moviemaker Damon Ira Chance, a self-described ``visionary'' who longs to film an ``epic western'' incarnating his conviction that ``the spirit of the age would express itself in an endless train of images.'' Harry seeks out Shorty McAdoo's story, not realizing that Chance will betray his ostensible vision, and that he will also unknowingly betray the aged, guilt-ridden McAdoo. The two stories intersect in a melodramatic climax that, unfortunately, drains the novel of much of the integrity given it by Vanderhaeghe's sharply imagined confrontation scenes and salty dialogue. The novel has a lot on its mind, and few readers will leave it unfinished, but there's a paradoxical problem at its core: As gripping as the manhunt story is, its characters remain frustratingly opaque (even the haunting figure of the Englishman's boy only awkwardly inhabits the narrative); and, despite Vanderhaeghe's persuasive characterization of the appealing Harry, the story he's part of feels inchoate and derivative. Two good half-novels here, but they don't come together as a whole. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 1997

ISBN: 0-312-16823-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1997

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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