Kadare lived in France from 1990 to 2002, returning to Albania only after his international reputation would seem to have...

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THE SIEGE

In his classic study The Singer of Tales (1960), eminent scholar Albert Lord demonstrated strong links between the twin Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey and the tradition of oral storytelling continued even into the 20th century in numerous European and Asian cultures, notably those of the Balkan countries. Prominent among the more modern counterparts of these preliterate “singers” are two of the last and present century’s most fascinating writers. Generations of political strife and cultural upheaval were seen through the amplifying prisms of traditional ballad and folklore in the colorful novels and stories of Bosnia’s Nobel laureate Ivo Andric (1892-1975), in such masterpieces as The Bridge on the Drina, which remains too little read today. A better fate perhaps awaits the living author who most closely resembles Andric: Albania’s controversial dissident author Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), winner of the first (2005) Man Booker International Prize and himself a prominent Nobel candidate.

Throughout a highly productive career, Kadare has displayed a truly cosmopolitan sensibility. After studying in Russia and publishing several volumes of poetry strongly influenced by other European literature, he turned to prose, with a boldly political novel (The General of the Dead Army, 1963) about a retired Fascist general and an Italian priest who scour the Albanian countryside in search of remains of Italian soldiers who had perished there during World War II. Such subjects have always involved risks in a tiny country that was until the early 20th century ruled by Ottoman Turks, and subsequently endured the 30-year dictatorship of brutal Stalinist Enver Hoxha. Recent opinions disagree about Kadare’s relationship to Hoxha. Some commentators argue that the novelist enabled the dictator by praising his strong leadership, while others point to transparent criticisms of totalitarian activities in fictions that are, on their surfaces, more allegorical and elliptical than they are openly confrontational.

Kadare lived in France from 1990 to 2002, returning to Albania only after his international reputation would seem to have made official persecution of him and his work unlikely. His more ambitious novels include Chronicle in Stone (1971), Broken April (1978), The Pyramid (1996)—and the forthcoming first English translation of another masterpiece, The Siege (1970). Set in the early 15th century, it chronicles an Ottoman Turkish army’s attack on a Christian fortress sequestered in the Albanian mountains. In a masterly conceptual stroke, Kadare presents the embattled Christians as a single, unified first-person-plural voice, and individualizes their attackers (an ambitious pasha, a nervous chronicler, an astrologer on whose predictions many lives depend et al.) as an unruly chaotic force foredoomed to failure. It’s an original approach to an old story many times retold; a song sung in an eloquently expressive voice, both agelessly familiar and refreshingly new.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-84767-185-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Canongate

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2008

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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