A seductively dark, wholly imaginative piece of historical fiction.

MASTER OF PROVIDENCE

A thoroughly engaging tale of love, mystery, murder and revolt set against the backdrop of antebellum Virginia.

Counihan’s new novel begins like Dickens. A young Londoner stuck between classes in the stratified society of 19th-century England is orphaned when his mother dies of cholera. But this fatherless boy, Victor Neville, is no Oliver Twist. He has a patron in his American uncle Robert, and he’s whisked away to his rich relative’s Virginia homestead, Providence Plantation. What was Dickens now feels more like Margaret Mitchell. In the hands of a lesser author, such a transoceanic shift would seem abrupt, amateurish or unbelievable, but Counihan is no such author, and we follow him—and Victor—willingly across the Atlantic Ocean to find what new adventures await the young boy. The work then sets up like a bildungsroman that will tell the story of Victor’s maturation. But 40 pages in, the novel morphs from a simple coming-of-age tale into a mysterious, inventive take on the subgenre of plantation fiction. After his arrival in Virginia, Victor saves one of his uncle’s slaves from the sexual predations of the overseer, Murphy. In the aftermath, a violent turn of events leaves Robert and Murphy dead and Victor recovering from shock in the care of the young woman he saved, Cleo. As he and Cleo become romantically entangled, Victor witnesses a sort of soft coup that leaves the slaves in a precarious state of freedom as the Civil War looms. Throughout, Counihan writes with grace and confidence. His prose is governed by a tight economy of language that leaves few wasted words. However, his tight writing is not sparse, and it leaves room for him to indulge in both lush descriptions of land and architecture and flights of philosophical fancy. Further, his recreation of 19th-century Virginia feels historically accurate. The author’s extensive knowledge of the Civil War—Counihan has a Ph.D. in American history—serves as the tale’s foundation, never as mere ornament.

A seductively dark, wholly imaginative piece of historical fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 20, 2011

ISBN: 978-1451579512

Page Count: 316

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2012

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

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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

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A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

THE SWALLOWED MAN

A retelling of Pinocchio from Geppetto's point of view.

The novel purports to be the memoirs of Geppetto, a carpenter from the town of Collodi, written in the belly of a vast fish that has swallowed him. Fortunately for Geppetto, the fish has also engulfed a ship, and its supplies—fresh water, candles, hardtack, captain’s logbook, ink—are what keep the Swallowed Man going. (Collodi is, of course, the name of the author of the original Pinocchio.) A misfit whose loneliness is equaled only by his drive to make art, Geppetto scours his surroundings for supplies, crafting sculptures out of pieces of the ship’s wood, softened hardtack, mussel shells, and his own hair, half hoping and half fearing to create a companion once again that will come to life. He befriends a crab that lives all too briefly in his beard, then mourns when “she” dies. Alone in the dark, he broods over his past, reflecting on his strained relationship with his father and his harsh treatment of his own “son”—Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that somehow came to life. In true Carey fashion, the author illustrates the novel with his own images of his protagonist’s art: sketches of Pinocchio, of woodworking tools, of the women Geppetto loved; photos of driftwood, of tintypes, of a sculpted self-portrait with seaweed hair. For all its humor, the novel is dark and claustrophobic, and its true subject is the responsibilities of creators. Remembering the first time he heard of the sea monster that was to swallow him, Geppetto wonders if the monster is somehow connected to Pinocchio: “The unnatural child had so thrown the world off-balance that it must be righted at any cost, and perhaps the only thing with the power to right it was a gigantic sea monster, born—I began to suppose this—just after I cracked the world by making a wooden person.” Later, contemplating his self-portrait bust, Geppetto asks, “Monster of the deep. Am I, then, the monster? Do I nightmare myself?”

A deep and grimly whimsical exploration of what it means to be a son, a father, and an artist.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18887-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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