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/Crown

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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Powerful but in need of a polish.

THE WOMAN WITH THE BLUE STAR

In Nazi-occupied Kraków, a friendship between two young women, one Jewish and one Polish, alters the destinies of both.

The present-day prologue introduces an unidentified 70-something woman who is visiting Poland, trying to work up the nerve to make contact with a 90-ish Kraków resident. The novel proper alternates the first-person narratives of Sadie Gault and Ella Stepanek, both 19. A mass deportation of Kraków’s Jews in 1943 drives Sadie’s father to take desperate measures to avoid the camps. With the help of Pawel, a Polish sewer worker, Sadie and her parents escape into Kraków’s sewer tunnels, but Sadie's father drowns along the way. To avoid capture, Sadie and her mother—who's pregnant—must hide in a small chamber inside the sewer system along with the Rosenbergs, a more devout family. Meanwhile, Ella’s father died defending Poland, and her stepmother, Ana, is now welcoming German officers to Ella’s family home (where she lives at Ana’s sufferance). Then one day, walking through a market, Ella spots Sadie through a grate, and they make eye contact. She returns the next day, and gradually the acquaintance between the young women warms into friendship. Sewer living gets even more challenging when Pawel, sole source of food and supplies, is arrested. Ella, aided by her resistance fighter boyfriend, smuggles food to the refugees. Sadie and young Saul Rosenberg overcome their religious differences and fall in love. After Sadie’s mother gives birth, the infant’s wails force the fugitives to make a terrible choice. All these well-drawn characters have too few options, which they debate endlessly and repetitiously. The description of how the sewer dwellers exist for months in a small, bare, filthy space is sketchy. The book's timeline can feel vague—the main action is happening in 1943, but the historical circumstances suggest 1944. There are continuity glitches. At the beginning of the book, Ella notes that her father left no will, but much later, the will turns up with no comment. Contemporary parlance creeps in: “we can do this,” “a few months tops.” Still, there are gripping scenes, particularly toward the end, and a poignant epilogue.

Powerful but in need of a polish.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-778-38938-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Park Row Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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