THE LIVES OF ANIMALS

Fluent, challenging lectures on the ethics that shape the human-animal relationship, from South African novelist and essayist Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg, 1994, etc.). Princeton’s Tanner Lectures are usually philosophical essays exploring human values. Here Coetzee subverts that formula by shaping his talks into fictional lectures given by an elderly novelist, Elizabeth Costello, on “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of”: our treatment of animals. It is now an old and troubling notion, this analogy between the death camps and the meat business, but it is compelling for Costello: she is troubled by our willed ignorance of the past and present existence of slaughterhouses, the sickness of soul that denies any creature the sensation of being alive, our poverty of sympathetic imagination. “The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims . . . They do not say ‘How would it be if I were burning?’ . . . In other words, they closed their hearts.” Coetzee is obviously aware of the potential noxiousness of this terrain (the poet Abraham Stern scorns Costello’s use of the analogy: “You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy”), and he uses it with provocative intent. Self-evident, though, is our collective failure of nerve (Thomas Aquinas through Descartes and Kant to today) to unleash “the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.” Perhaps, Coetzee implies, rational thought, lagging behind sympathy, will follow its lead if powerful fictions and images can trigger our fellow feelings. Coetzee takes no prisoners; there is always suffering on the road to salvation. That includes Costello’s painful relationship with her son, a terrain so emotionally arid it makes the skin crawl. Included are four commentaries—by literary theorist Marjorie Garber, philosopher Peter Singer, religious scholar Wendy Doniger, and primatologist Barbara Smuts—that add touchwood, and a measure of windiness, to Coetzee’s ethical tinderbox.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-691-00443-9

Page Count: 130

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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