Elegant and carefully assembled, but hobbled by a persistent solemnity.

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GIRAFFE

Based on actual events, Ledgard’s somber first novel tells the story of a few dozen ill-fated giraffes brought from Africa into communist Czechoslovakia in 1973.

Thirty-two giraffes, to be exact, which here become 32 towering symbols for a grim, misguided Soviet regime. The story is told by Emil, a “haemodynamicst” who’s charged with safely shepherding the animals, captured in Africa, from West Germany via barge across the Iron Curtain. The narrative becomes duller, with the imagery more gray, as Emil drifts deeper into Czechoslovakia. But other voices emerge, including that of a giraffe named Snehurka (Czech for “snow white”) and Amina, a sleepwalking factory worker who takes a liking to the animals when they arrive in her hometown. Amina’s sections bring some grace and a touch of magical-realism to the prose that’s absent elsewhere—her discussions of her dreams and factory work (she colors Christmas ornaments) brighten the story even while they expose how glum and oppressive her world has become. The herd grew to nearly 50 by April 30, 1975, when a virus forced the authorities to approve a secret purge of the animals, and more characters arrive in the chapters that relate the nightmarish task. Their perspectives—of a virologist, a sharpshooter, a slaughterhouse worker—give the book a propulsiveness that’s lacking in the earlier portions. Ledgard, a Scottish-born foreign correspondent for the Economist, has clearly gone to pains to get the details of this hidden communist-era scandal, and the book might have worked better as an extended piece of reporting. Ledgard creates potent, beautifully observed passages, but his metaphorical connections are obvious—Amina’s no more a sleepwalker than her doctrinaire comrades, and the noble giraffes can see above the walls erected by the myopic communist regime.

Elegant and carefully assembled, but hobbled by a persistent solemnity.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2006

ISBN: 1-59420-099-8

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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