A highly readable and adeptly crafted addition to the literature of Appalachia.

THIS WILL NEVER STOP

A literary novel unspools a multigenerational saga about West Virginia women.

Harshbarger Mills, West Virginia. Lorraine Rhodes and her siblings were abandoned on a sad Easter by their alcoholic mother, who left them to be raised with little support in their judgmental, religiously conservative, small Appalachian town. Now married with children of her own—whom she is raising purposefully to be suspicious of religion—Lorraine harbors an understandable bitterness toward her mother, Carmen Amber Rhodes, who occasionally visits her in dreams. The answers to all of the questions she has about her mother are found in a letter that Carmen finally writes to Lorraine after a quarter-century’s absence, detailing her own life’s struggles with family, God, and alcohol. “I’ve written you many letters over the years but either crumpled them or X-ed out my thoughts,” pens Carmen. “I’m scared, Lorraine, but the best way to fight fear is with the truth. I’m going to tell you the real reasons I didn’t come back, and I can do this without a drink in sight.” The massive letter has an impact not only on Lorraine, but also on her daughter, Jenna Johnson, who has her own adolescent opinions on the whole situation—and predictably, she sees Lorraine as the villain, not Grandma Carmen. Finally, the matriarch of the family has her say: Lizzie McClure McComas, mother of Carmen, who has been buried in the town cemetery for long enough that her bones are bleached white. From beyond the grave, she takes up the story of the McComas/Rhodes/Johnson women, which began with her birth back in the early 20th century, and connects them all through their bloodlines and a curious family heirloom: a silver bottle that has been buried in the ground for 17 years. Spilman’s (Tight Squeeze, 2017, etc.) textured prose masterfully evokes the hard-knock lives and locales that define these women. It particularly shines in the Carmen section, which is both the longest chapter and the spiritual heart of the tale: “I’d have laughed if I’d been capable of it, but all I did was go where I was directed, dragging a shovel and carrying a trowel. The shovel was necessary because someone had donated four dwarf spruces, and I was the best hole digger. One of the men offered to help, but I declined.” Novels that chart families—and their curses—over the course of multiple generations are nothing new, but the author’s inventive structure manages to give the book a feeling of simultaneity, allowing four generations (one of them deceased) to share the present. It also permits resentments and traumas to fuel the plot rather than mere chronology, which helps dispel the sense of inevitability that so often is found in historical fiction. The ending may land with some readers better than others, but Spilman should be commended for making bold narrative choices. Together, these four portraits of West Virginia women—of different times, classes, and levels of opportunity—illustrate the stresses and expectations of small-town womanhood, both from without the family and from within.

A highly readable and adeptly crafted addition to the literature of Appalachia.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-79605-134-6

Page Count: 266

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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