A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

Shadows of fire


Alsina’s debut novel, translated from the Catalan, is an unusual historical saga that touches on the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, deconstructionism, kidney transplantation and 1960s sexual liberation.

As the novel opens in 1932, Samuel Klein, a Freudian psychoanalyst in Berlin, and his fiancée, American pianist Ruth, face exile as Jews. Rather than exploring this dramatic pre-Holocaust situation in depth, however, the narrative quickly skips to 1963. Samuel and Ruth’s daughter, Sarah, is a recent University of California, Berkeley, graduate who’s passionate about political activism and feminism. She travels to France to study philosophy under Jacques Derrida. Samuel asks Sarah to meet with Armand Roare, the son of a Catalan doctor who saved his life in 1940; Armand is heading to Paris from Barcelona, to complete a nephrology residency. Over jazz concerts, Sarah and Armand grow closer, and through meetings with Samuel’s wartime colleagues, they uncover stories of his exploits. While a refugee, Samuel spied for the British, reporting on Nazi activity and leading Jews to safety through Spain. Professional ambitions lead Sarah and Armand in different directions, as he performs Barcelona’s first kidney transplant and she takes Derrida’s theories to the United States, but a hurried last section gives the lovers one final, bittersweet rendezvous. The author’s scenes of World War II and the Spanish Civil War provide a vibrant backdrop to its middle flashback section. However, long passages of redundant historical detail seem shoehorned in. The book’s political commentary is also rather shallow (“We Jews want to flee from our cages”; “[w]ars are always cruel for the vast majority of the population in all countries”). Unfortunately, the novel’s characterizations sometimes fail to rise above stereotypes (“He tended to gesticulate when he spoke, as people from the Mediterranean do”), and its explicit sex scenes, though convincing, are sometimes overwritten (“Lustfully, he felt himself immersed in a liberating burst”). Throughout the novel, characters’ backgrounds are often forced into dialogue: “Before going to Paris…we’d like to hear about your life experiences.” Ultimately, even the 1960s framing device seems unnecessary; the best portions of the book recreate wartime action, and they might have been expanded to fill a whole novel.

A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

Pub Date: May 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-1496168948

Page Count: 340

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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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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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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