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

A TRAVELER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM

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 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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