The old problem of free will and predestination gets a good workout, but Betancourt’s novel is less satisfying than her 2010...

THE BLUE LINE

Erstwhile Colombian politician Betancourt (Until Death Do Us Part, 2002, etc.) tries her hand at a kind of watery magical realism in this debut novel.

Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. That explains why someone like Juan Perón could have returned to power following disgrace and why the generals who ruled Argentina in the 1970s and '80s could have disappeared so many men and women who simply sought justice. Julia and Theo are caught up in events. As a very young girl, Julia had learned that she could see things unfolding through the eyes of others, a kind of clairvoyance accompanied by tremors and “an irrational feeling of panic.” Moreover, Julia has a touch of synesthesia, and for her, “happiness is blue,” as in the place where the blue line of the sky meets that of the ocean. That’s all well and good, but Julia doesn’t see far enough into her own future to see that life with Theo is going to be difficult: “He wasn’t handsome by any means,” writes Betancourt, with the head-scratchingly vague addendum, “but he had the appeal of young people who enjoy other people’s company.” Life with Theo is complicated in part because he’s got a wandering eye, in part because of the inquisitors who disapprove of the young couple’s generously liberal politics: “Say good-bye to your youth, asshole,” barks one. “When you come back you’ll feel a hundred years old.” Improbably, Julia and Theo make their way out of prison to the comfortable suburbs of America, where a different future unfolds. The best passages of Betancourt’s novel take place behind bars, which speaks to her own well-known captivity in the hands of Marxist guerrillas. Against this, Julia’s supernatural powers seem an unnecessary flourish, though clearly she’s useful to have on hand if trying to dodge oncoming cars or downward-hurtling planes.

The old problem of free will and predestination gets a good workout, but Betancourt’s novel is less satisfying than her 2010 memoir Even Silence Has an End.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-658-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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