THE WASP FACTORY

Through much of this impressive first novel, almost up until the awkward and misguided finale, young Scottish writer Banks achieves that fine British balance—between horrific content on the one hand and matter-of-fact comic delivery on the other. The narrator, whose cool prose is sometimes a bit too sophisticated for credibility, is 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, living outside a remote Scottish village—a cheerfully insane lad who tortures animals, imagines that he gets instructions from the "Factory" (the room upstairs where he cremates wasps), and fondly recalls the three grisly/farcical murders he committed from age six to age ten. Is there good reason for Frank to be so blithely unhinged, so devoted to his warfare against wildlife and his ritual killings? ("How the hell am I supposed to get heads and bodies for the Poles and the Bunker if I don't kill things?") There is indeed. His father, an ex-hippie and sometime chemist, is a shambling eccentric obsessed with measurement. His flower-child mother deserted Frank at birth, then briefly returned when he was three—and may have helped to cause little Frank's life-shattering accident. (A nasty old dog supposedly chewed off the toddler's genitals.) Furthermore, Frank's older half-brother Eric, who was deserted by two mothers, has gone certifiably bonkers—setting fires, eating dogs; his madness was triggered by a ghastly moment while working as a hospital orderly (a grotesque horror for only the very strongest of stomach); and now he has just escaped from the asylum, making his way home to Frank, "a force of fire and disruption approaching the sands of the island like a mad angel, head swarming with echoing screams of madness and delusion." Banks handles this gothic/clinical material, for the most part, with sure, deadpan restraint, echoing William Golding, Saki, and Joe Orton—while finding hilarity in fugitive Eric's loony phone-calls to Frank, in misogynistic Frank's drunken rambles with dwarf-pal Jamie. Here and there, however, the underlying themes of sex/aggression are spelled out lumpily. ("All our lives are symbols. . . women can give birth and men can kill.") And the final chapter, mixing Eric's violent homecoming with revelations about Frank's true sexuality, pushes a delicately gripping nightmare-novel over the edge into psycho-melodrama and sexual polemics. In sum: a nastily striking, somewhat uneven debut—at its dreadful best when not straining for symbolic shockers or cosmic resonance.

Pub Date: Aug. 24, 1984

ISBN: 0684853159

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1984

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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