With unabashed echoes of all the great "river novels," from Huckleberry Finn to Heart of Darkness to The African Queen, Ballard (The Crystal World, Crash, Empire of the Sun) offers here a poetic, stately, oddly half-involving tale—part escape/chase adventure, part symbolic soul-journey. The narrator-seeker is British doctor Mallory, in charge of the WHO clinic at Port-la-Nouvelle in an unnamed nation "in the dead heart of the African continent," bordering on Chad and the Sudan. The area has been depopulated by the spreading Sahara desert, by civil war between government forces (vile) and Marxist guerrillas (worse). So, virtually without patients, Mallory has focused instead on a local engineering project, seemingly doomed: digging wells for irrigation. Obsessed, he refuses to leave Port-la-Nouvelle—despite a near-fatal encounter with the guerrillas, despite the obnoxious arrival of pathetic Prof. Sanger, a has-been purveyor of pop-science who's desperate to generate some sort of media-event for a TV documentary. And Mallory's mania escalates when, for unclear reasons (earthquake? wayward engineering?), a brand-new river appears precisely where Mallory has been digging! Mallory reacts to this quasi-miracle with wild ambivalence. He believes the river is his creation; he's soon referring to it as "the Mallory." Yet he now determines to destroy it—to follow it north to its source, to dam it up so that it irrigates the Sahara. (Or "was my attempt to scotch the river nothing more than the last installment of that suicide by easy payments on which I had embarked by first choosing to work at Port-la-Nouvelle?") Teaming up with 12-year-old Noon, a sometime girl-guerrilla, Mallory steals a ferry and sails upriver—chased via helicopter by reptilian Capt. Kagwa, whose beloved Mercedes limo (totem of his power-grabbing dreams) is on the ferry. Also in pursuit: feverish Prof. Sanger and his equally frail Indian sidekick; wildlife activist Nora Warrender, out to avenge the guerrillas' murder of her husband; plus, of course, the guerrillas themselves. And the ensuing action—boat collisions, copter attacks, exploding dams—is textured with Mallory's sporadic self-analysis. . .and with his increasingly erotic attachment to Noon, who seems to embody the traumatized spirit of native populations. Mallory's inner turmoil, with constant mood-shifts and philosophical flip-flops, is often more tiresome than compelling—and never connected to a credible psycho-portrait. The novel's mixture of tones—satiric, symbolic, derring-do-ish—doesn't quite ignite. Still, if rather murky in overall thrust, chapter by chapter this is rich, strange work from a distinctive storyteller: elegantly phrased, vividly imagined, and rescued from portentousness by a deeply ironic tilt.

Pub Date: April 1, 1988

ISBN: 0312421281

Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1988

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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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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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