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THE TRAITOR'S NICHE

Kadare's political impact and significance have made him an oft-mentioned candidate in Nobel Prize handicapping.

A political fable of decapitation amid totalitarian oppression combines wickedly funny satire with darker, deeper lessons.

One of a series of books by Albania’s premier novelist (Twilight of the Eastern Gods, 2014, etc.) that was banned in his homeland, this novel was published in 1978 but has only recently been translated into English. The only signs that it's set in the early 19th century are offhand references to Byron and Napoleon; otherwise it reads less like historical fiction than timeless prophecy, as it anticipates the relentless expansion of an empire “encompassing three continents, twenty-nine peoples, six religions, four races, and forty languages.”In the language of a fairy tale, “the empire was larger than the night. People said that when dusk fell at one end, dawn rose at the other.” The title refers to the spot in the town square where the severed heads of rebel leaders are displayed and preserved, offering a cautionary lesson to the visitors who flock to the spectacle. There are a pair of protagonists—Abdulla, who guards the heads as the “keeper of the Traitor’s Niche,” and Tundj Hata, the imperial courier sent to retrieve the heads and deliver them by horseback for their public display. The narrative concerns a rebellion and its aftermath in the outpost of Albania, which must then undergo the process by which all conquered peoples are absorbed into the empire. Thus, the “full erasure of national identity” encompasses “the reduction of the language into Nonspeak” and the eradication of all other forms of national culture. Though the guard and the courier never appear in the same scene, the novel’s resolution finds one in open rebellion, having gone mad, as the other continues with business as usual. The separation of the head from the body, or the intellect from the emotions, takes other forms than capital punishment.

Kadare's political impact and significance have made him an oft-mentioned candidate in Nobel Prize handicapping.

Pub Date: June 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64009-044-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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