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A TRAVELER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM

An intriguing work whose ambition and richness should, for many readers, overcome some flaws.

This challenging, time-traveling epic looks at a family’s travails in different eras and locales around the world.

With his 12th novel for adults, Irish writer Boyne tracks one family, more or less, through two millennia and over much of the globe. Gird your loins: This is busy and potentially confusing stuff, teeming with treachery, flaying, famous figures, and “the marriage act.” As the book begins, in Palestine,  1 C.E., the unnamed male narrator’s father, a Roman soldier, heads off to slaughter innocents at Herod’s behest. Chapter 2’s segue suggests the same narrative, but the family members have different names and live in Turkey,  41 C.E. So it will go, for 50 chapters, as the family members and their crises slowly evolve in ever new settings enriched by historical details and cameos from Attila, Michelangelo, and Lady Macbeth, inter alia. It’s a kind of mashup of the History Channel and soap operas, with the cast facing enslavement, rape, gay bashing, murder, natural disasters, a missing brother, and lost wives. The narrator, along with an artistic bent, has a nasty side, and the latter part of the book will be dominated by his drive for vengeance against a crippled cousin. With Chapter 51, the final crisis arrives in the U.S. on election night 2016. Boyne is a gifted storyteller, but the language here can be stilted, sometimes comically so: “the unexpected engorgement beneath my tunic.” His theme, with all its variations and repetition, boils down to plus ca change: “[T]he things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.” Yet an epilogue set in the near future suggests what it might take to get us off our hamster wheel.

An intriguing work whose ambition and richness should, for many readers, overcome some flaws.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-23015-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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