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

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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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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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