With stark, precise poetry, Humphreys builds a palpable, almost unbearable sense of inevitability and loss that echoes both...

COVENTRY

The underappreciated Humphreys (Wild Dogs, 2005, etc.) offers a journey through the dark night of the soul that was the November 14, 1940, bombing of Coventry.

Middle-aged Harriet is serving as firewatcher on the roof of Coventry Cathedral when the German bombers arrive. The church in flames, Harriet finds herself wandering the burning city with another firewatcher, a young man named Jeremy who recently moved to Coventry for its wartime jobs with his mother Maeve. Harriet, whose husband died at Ypres only months after their marriage in 1914, does not realize that Maeve is the same young woman with whom she shared her first ride on a doubledecker bus the day she saw her husband off to war. The women felt a bond but remained nameless strangers. Since then Harriet has stayed in Coventry as a solitary widow, while Maeve, who never married, has led a mildly nomadic life with Jeremy as her emotional center. When the bombs fall, Maeve is in a pub. She soon leaves the safety of her shelter to return home and wait for Jeremy. Meanwhile, Jeremy and Harriet encounter scenes both horrific and surreal—dead bodies of children, a burning river of melted butter. They find Harriet’s house destroyed. By the time they reach Maeve and Jeremy’s house, Maeve has already been pulled into the exodus out of the city. The note she’s left behind for Jeremy gets lost in the kitchen debris. Harriet and Jeremy find a moment of respite in the house and despite their age differences make brief, exhausted love. Before Jeremy returns to the streets, he lends Maeve’s coat to Harriet. Joining the exodus, Harriet runs across Maeve, who recognizes her coat, and they unite to look for Jeremy. By the time they learn Jeremy’s fate, they have recalled their first meeting and formed a new, lasting bond.

With stark, precise poetry, Humphreys builds a palpable, almost unbearable sense of inevitability and loss that echoes both John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06720-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2008

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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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