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SONG YET SUNG

Explosively dramatic.

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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A LITTLE LIFE

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

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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. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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