THE MUSEUM GUARD

The late Bernard Malamud’s resonant maxim “All men are Jews” might have served as subtitle for this harrowing exploration of the collision of personal conscience with historical circumstance: the third novel and best yet from Norman (The Bird Artist, 1994, etc.). Narrator DeFoe Russet, orphaned since the death of his parents in a zeppelin crash, works as a guard in a private museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, alongside his uncle (and former guardian) Edward, a vigorous middle-aged sensualist who—the more reserved DeFoe realizes—was “living tenfold what I could.” DeFoe’s cramped horizons are broadened by his loving relationship with Imogen Linny, the attractive caretaker of a small Jewish cemetery in Halifax, who envies him his “ennobling” closeness to works of art. But the intimacy of the two dissipates when Imogen (“Imagine”?), fixated on the Dutch painting Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, begins believing that she herself is the woman it portrays. The year is 1938; news of Hitler’s mission to destroy Europe’s Jewry reaches Halifax through “Voice of Conscience” Ovid Lamartine’s Dateline: Europe radio broadcasts. As Imogen prepares to journey “back” to the endangered Old World, ironic parallels of Nazi rampages—even a literal “night of broken glass”—occur in DeFoe’s hitherto sheltered world, and a crime that is simultaneously an act of kindness and a probable death sentence removes him from the orbit of others struggling both to save the “deluded” Imogen and to honor her yearning to “liv[e] a true life,” even though it’s not her own. The long denouement—told in a series of letters sent home by another Nova Scotian stripped of his innocence—hauntingly details the consequences of Imogen’s willed transformation. The concepts of belonging, stewardship, “ennoblement,” “truce,” guilt, and survival are brilliantly dramatized in this breathtakingly readable novel. Wonderful fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-21649-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1998

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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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