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FOUR SOLDIERS

Spare, matter-of-fact and masterfully controlled, this is a novel as noteworthy for what it leaves out—politics, purpose for...

Four young soldiers find comfort and a sense of belonging with each other that at least one of them has never experienced before.

French novelist Mingarelli (A Meal in Winter, 2016, etc.) focuses tightly on a winter in 1919 when the Red Army is encamped near a forest while awaiting the spring that will surely bring the battalion’s movement and the resumption of violence within the Russian civil war. The first-person narrator is named Benia, though the reader doesn’t learn this until almost a third of the way through the novel, within the dialogue he recounts. The first chapter shows how quickly, coincidentally, and almost accidentally he bonded first with another young soldier, then another, and then with a fourth they recruited. “I thought to myself: That’s it, I’m not alone in the world any more,” he says. “And I was right.” The reader learns little about Benia, perhaps because Benia doesn’t think there is much worth knowing. He's an orphan who had little sense of connection or purpose before joining the army and being sent to the Romanian front. There, he meets Pavel, another young soldier, who changes Benia's life when he says, “Let’s stay together.” The narrator intuits that Pavel is smarter, more experienced, and more of a leader, a contrast underlined when Pavel subsequently befriends the larger and more impulsive Kyabine, who will do the heavy lifting for the group, and the more compassionate and intuitive Sifra, who says little and reveals less of himself than the others. Though the winter is harsh, its interlude is almost idyllic, at least in terms of what the four men know is coming—the endless march toward violence. They find a pond that they keep secret from the others. They pass around a watch that has a woman’s face, which they consider lucky. They play dice games, gamble with cigarettes, share meager rations. They are joined by another, whose intrusion changes the dynamic. And then they are ordered to move, and Pavel insists, “Where we’re going there won’t be any good moments, because all that is behind us now.” And he is right, as the foursome’s bond cannot survive.

Spare, matter-of-fact and masterfully controlled, this is a novel as noteworthy for what it leaves out—politics, purpose for fighting, anything that reflects on the world at large—as for what it includes.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62097-440-7

Page Count: 160

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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NORMAL PEOPLE

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Awards & Accolades

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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. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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