SONG YET SUNG

The slave-owning culture of Maryland’s eastern shore in the 1850s comprises the world of McBride’s second novel (following Miracle at St. Anna, 2002, and the bestselling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 1996).

Recaptured runaway slave Liz Spocott, wounded by a musket blast and chained to fellow runaways in the attic of “trader”-crime boss Patty Cannon, learns “the Code” by which embattled slaves communicate and survive from a skeletal woman (“The old Woman With No Name”) and, acting on a chance opportunity, escapes again. The novel then assumes the shape of a series of quests and pursuits. Liz wanders along a perilous route which she hopes will lead her to the Freedom Train, hence northward to safety—accompanied and bedeviled by prophetic “visions” that reach far into “the future of the colored race.” The latter are often eerily compelling, but when “the Dreamer” Liz “sees” rap and hip-hop performances, and eventually Martin Luther King’s “Free At Last” speech, the novel groans under the weight of forced Significance. Far more compelling are parallel tales: of the Woolman, a gigantic black who lives in a swamp and keeps an alligator named Gar; widowed landowner Kathleen Sullivan, unhinged by sexual longing for her handsome young slave Amber; and Denwood Long, a former slave-catcher lured out of retirement to return Liz to her irate owner Colonel Spocott. While its language is frequently stiff and unconvincing, the book has great compensatory strengths. McBride views the “peculiar institution” of slavery from an impressive multiplicity of involved characters’ and observers’ viewpoints. He describes emotionally charged, hurried actions superbly, and he makes expert use of folklore, legend and the eponymous unsung song (which we do eventually hear). In Denwood’s grim, fatalistic pursuit of his destiny, McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution and sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner’s sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Explosively dramatic.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59448-972-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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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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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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