Readers may be reminded of Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” perhaps also of John Knowles’s A...



The metaphor of rowing gathers a rich nexus of meanings in this terse, haunting novel, the first from yet another accomplished writer from the Netherlands.

It’s the story of a relationship that is and isn’t a friendship, narrated by Anton, a young resident of Amsterdam, as he revisits the destroyed places where he had spent his youth, on the eve of the city’s liberation during the waning days of the WWII. Anton specifically recalls the summers of 1938 and 1939, when he found relief from the drab life circumscribed by his father’s job as a train station attendant and their unlovely home (“the roof that the housing corporation had given us . . . also shut out light and air”) in joining a posh rowing “club” and pairing with David, a child of wealth and privilege, under the tutelage of their enigmatic German coach Dr. Schneiderhahn. Van den Brink telescopes much of what occurs outside the “world” of the club and the river, deftly contrasting Anton’s nostalgic reveries with brief glimpses of the havoc that had spread even to the lavish home where David (whose later fate is not disclosed) had seemed safe, if not invulnerable. Anton’s plaintive yearning for “the strange life on the water that we shared” expresses both his unrealized hope for a fuller life and a subtly suggested confession of his borderline-sexual infatuation with the charismatic, somewhat distant David (a possibly mutual attraction also embedded in a story David tells, about separated Platonic “halves” forever seeking reunion), while also offering a muted lament for windswept, perfect summer days, part of the beauty decimated by Hitler’s inexorable momentum. The novel’s elegiac tone is effectively varied by van den Brink’s obviously knowledgeable re-creations of the experiences of oarsmen, which culminate in a vividly described climactic championship race.

Readers may be reminded of Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” perhaps also of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Still, On the Water is a work of real originality, and a fine introduction to a splendid new novelist.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-8021-1692-2

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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A gut-wrenching debut.

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The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...


A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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