Rollicking and engaging. A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work.

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THE OBSERVATIONS

In her entertaining debut, a British writer hands the job of storytelling to a saucily streetwise servant in Victorian Scotland.

Daisy O’Toole (aka Bessy Buckley) leaps to irresistible life on page one of this historical mystery/romp—she’s a savvy, earthy, comical and compelling character in search of decent work, having already earned her stripes as a child prostitute and live-in concubine when she was probably no older than 14. Despite her salty tongue and seen-it-all attitude, she charms her way into employment at Castle Haivers, working as the “in and out girl” (i.e., maid) for Arabella Reid, who is secretly writing Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, for which she obliges Daisy to write a (semi-literate) journal. Harris neatly layers these texts, with their omissions, embellishments and varied versions of the facts. Daisy learns from Arabella’s book that a previous maid, Nora, a model servant, met a nasty end under the wheels of a speeding train. Daisy uses her own journal to exploit her mistress’s nerves and Arabella has a breakdown, her mental health now given over to the care of her husband and a doctor keen to apply punishing contemporary remedies. (While Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith took a different, more terrifying look at Victorian treatment of the insane, the authors have in common an invigorating modern approach to historical fiction.) Harris’s story, though light on plot, is rich in character, its strength deriving almost wholly from Daisy’s irrepressible and ripe narrative voice. A helter-skelter conclusion combines farce (Arabella escapes confinement and beats with a shovel the pompous cleric responsible for Nora’s downfall), tragedy (another death on the railway line) and moral improvement (Daisy’s virtues recognized), takes a few sideswipes at the publishing business and still leaves the door open for what Daisy might do next.

Rollicking and engaging. A confident, fresh, roguishly charming first work.

Pub Date: June 19, 2006

ISBN: 0-670-03773-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2006

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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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