A tender-hearted account, winning in its simplicity, of a childhood infected too soon by the darkness of adults.

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IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this intriguing debut by a Libyan expatriate spotlights a Libyan family buffeted by a repressive regime.

The Qaddafi dictatorship is seen through the eyes of an only child, nine-year-old Suleiman. He lives with his Mama and Baba (father) in Tripoli; the year is 1979. Baba has international business interests; while he’s traveling, Mama becomes “ill” and takes her “medicine” (alcohol provided, illegally, by the baker). It’s not the happiest of marriages. It was arranged by her family after she was seen with a boy at a coffeehouse. She was only 14 and Baba a total stranger on that “black day” they wed. Her plight weighs heavily on Suleiman, but soon he will have more to worry about. Their neighbor Ustath Rashid, a university teacher and father of his best friend Kareem, is taken away by government agents on suspicion of betraying the regime; Mama, opposed to political activism, now shuns her neighbors and Suleiman, hating himself, breaks with Kareem. Baba is the regime’s next target; frantically, Mama burns all his beloved books. Matar precisely captures Suleiman’s bewilderment as his world falls apart. He’s afraid of the goon parked outside their door, but like the other kids is attracted to the power that radiates from another neighbor, Jafer, a top security official. Mama, practicing “the dark art of submission,” appeals to Jafer to save Baba. Her entreaties work. Baba is returned home, beaten up but with no broken bones. Their erstwhile neighbor is less fortunate. In the novel’s most riveting scene, he is hanged in front of a cheering crowd, a TV spectacular. So, state terror is now added to the Koran and the tales of Scheherazade as one of Suleiman’s formative influences. Some loose ends and a rushed postscript showing Suleiman’s later life in Cairo are minor problems.

A tender-hearted account, winning in its simplicity, of a childhood infected too soon by the darkness of adults.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2007

ISBN: 0-385-34042-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2006

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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