An ambitious work sabotaged by a confusing plot and awkwardly turbid prose.

NYASALA

A JOURNEY OF AVIATORS AND HUMANITARIANS WORKING DURING THE CRISIS IN SOUTH SUDAN

In this historical novel set in the South Sudan, a man looks for the young sister he lost during the confusion of the country’s civil war, assisted by a battery of pilots and humanitarian workers.

While her village was being brutally pillaged by soldiers, 3-year-old Nyasala was separated from her family. Fortunately spared from violence, she’s been taken under the care of neighbor Mayen, who does his best to navigate her to safety across lands torn asunder by conflict. He’s a remarkably reliable guide for his age—he’s 18—unsurprising, since he’s worked as a spy for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Much later, Nyasala—now 10 years old—has been adopted by a Murle family; she’s of Nuer extraction, and the Nuers and Murles have long been locked in conflict over cattle, the “most profitable commodity.” Nyasala’s brother, Akol—who was separated from her when soldiers overran their village—learns that she may be living in Pibor, an area so dangerous its humanitarian staff is being evacuated. Debut author Jackson describes a collaborative effort to find her, detailing the roles of medical professionals, pilots, security officials, and nongovernmental organization operatives, as well as the enmeshed presence of “Mama UN.” It is impossible to identify, beyond Nyasala, a protagonist, a refreshingly uncommon literary strategy: First published in Spanish and translated by Katz, the entire novel reveals layer upon layer of bureaucratic entanglement and collegial cooperation among the many agencies, public and private, attempting to save the war-torn country from itself. However, the plot is crammed with too many intersecting narrative lines, and because of the general sloppiness of the writing—or perhaps of the translation—it is nearly impossible to keep them neatly distinct. The author seems to introduce a new character with each page, failing to give enough attention to any one of them to achieve proper development. Jackson is at his best portraying the grim litany of “persecution, rape, and street violence” in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba. However, his prose ranges from haltingly ungrammatical to simply unintelligible, as in sentences like this one: “It was their pride to maintain and controlling the area since their salary’s rarely paid which was another reason to erupt the current conflict in this young nation.”

An ambitious work sabotaged by a confusing plot and awkwardly turbid prose.

Pub Date: June 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5320-7654-1

Page Count: 198

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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