AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER

A NOVEL

Of all the major South American novelists, Vargas Llosa may be the sunniest: he never tries too hard to hold back a sophisticated yet honest amusement at how oddly life usually moves around; his stories of 1950s Lima and Peru have a vernal lilt as well as an expected complexity. And this large new novel is both contrapuntal and positively jaunty. The (apparently autobiographical) narrator, Marie, is not yet 21, working as a newswriter for a mediocre Lima radio station—when his young, divorced aunt-by-marriage, Julia, arrives in town from Bolivia for a little amorous adventure on the rebound. . . only to find herself a wild oat sown by Marie, who puts a move on her right away. Julia, piqued by the novelty, goes along. And the flirtation turns into real romance, then into scandal, and—finally—into a brief but entertaining-for-as-long-as-it-lasts marriage. This bubbly romantic improbability is only one layer here, however—because interleaved with it are gothic yet hilarious radio soap-opera scripts written by yet another Bolivian export to Lima: Pedro Camacho, a humorless, 50-year-old, Argentine-hating troll who quickly becomes the hit of the town with his gory yet full-spirited tales of murder and obsession and ruin. (So intense and devoted is he that he even dresses up as his characters would while he writes, throwing himself utterly—and with priestly artistic purity—into his trashy but beautifully filled-out work.) Each serial, which Vargas Llosa presents as a throbbingly rococo story-summary, is more grotesque and ghastly than the next—until, at one point, Camacho, riding the crest, becomes so ornate and involved that he starts forgetting names and traits of his characters, confusing them; and eventually he has to resort to mass destruction (stadium riots, earthquakes in church) to kill everyone off and thus start clean. Two curves, then, meet in this book: the ascending, rather silly one of Marie and Julia's affair, and the grand-guignol descending one of Camacho's fall into incoherence and failure. And though the anything-but-heavyhanded Vargas Llosa doesn't stick a pin at the meeting point, you're aware of it nonetheless: storytelling is as subject to inexplicable natural laws—entropy, gravity, decomposition—as anything else. All done with the fondest savoring of the virtues of truly popular culture, innocence, imagination: a graceful, untaxing, sweetly subtle book.

Pub Date: July 1, 1982

ISBN: 0312427247

Page Count: 101

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1982

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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