A startling, sometimes-chilling tale of mental illness and familial abuse.

The Boy Who Lived with Ghosts

Mitchell’s debut novel is an autobiographical account of a young lad in a broken home, living in poverty and surrounded by death and madness.

In 1960s England, 5-year-old John has already experienced life’s worst: He’s watched relatives die, suffered the abuses of an alcoholic father and contended with poverty—all while living in a dilapidated home. But it gets worse. John’s older sister, Margueretta, locks him in the cellar, where he believes something hides in the dark with him. As the boy moves closer to adulthood, he continues to fall victim to Margueretta, who beats him often and slowly becomes unhinged. The ghosts in the author’s book are metaphorical, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this powerful narrative, which is both a coming-of-age story for John and a blistering chronicle of his sister’s physical and psychological torment of him. The novel also portrays more typical adolescent scenes, like John and his friend, Danny, trying their best to see girls’ knickers or a teacher answering male students’ anonymous and detailed questions about sex. But these plotlines work best as amusing reprieves—not from “that thing in the corner” awaiting John in the cellar, but from the reason he’s in the cellar in the first place. Margueretta’s behavior toward her little brother is despicable; she verbally degrades him, pulls his hair and spits on him. But as the story progresses, Margueretta is more and more terrifying. She starts hearing voices that tell her to kill herself, which she attempts to do with a bread knife. John’s life in a poor family brims with poignant scenes that are both bleak and tongue-in-cheek: John and his twin sister, Emily, visit Auntie Dot, who’s unfazed by either cat hair in the kids’ food or an unlabeled can, donated by church members, and its most unwelcome contents. But it’s Margueretta who leaves the strongest impression, and this is no more forcefully emphasized than when John, seeing his sister’s face during a psychotic episode, says, “Now I know what the Devil looks like.” The title suggests a ghost story, but a boy witnessing firsthand the onset and evolution of a mental breakdown is as bloodcurdling as anything supernatural, perhaps more so.

A startling, sometimes-chilling tale of mental illness and familial abuse.

Pub Date: May 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-0615793207

Page Count: 438

Publisher: Inclusic

Review Posted Online: June 26, 2013

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The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with...

SUMMER ISLAND

Talk-show queen takes tumble as millions jeer.

Nora Bridges is a wildly popular radio spokesperson for family-first virtues, but her loyal listeners don't know that she walked out on her husband and teenaged daughters years ago and didn't look back. Now that a former lover has sold racy pix of naked Nora and horny himself to a national tabloid, her estranged daughter Ruby, an unsuccessful stand-up comic in Los Angeles, has been approached to pen a tell-all. Greedy for the fat fee she's been promised, Ruby agrees and heads for the San Juan Islands, eager to get reacquainted with the mom she plans to betray. Once in the family homestead, nasty Ruby alternately sulks and glares at her mother, who is temporarily wheelchair-bound as a result of a post-scandal car crash. Uncaring, Ruby begins writing her side of the story when she's not strolling on the beach with former sweetheart Dean Sloan, the son of wealthy socialites who basically ignored him and his gay brother Eric. Eric, now dying of cancer and also in a wheelchair, has returned to the island. This dismal threesome catch up on old times, recalling their childhood idylls on the island. After Ruby's perfect big sister Caroline shows up, there's another round of heartfelt talk. Nora gradually reveals the truth about her unloving husband and her late father's alcoholism, which led her to seek the approval of others at the cost of her own peace of mind. And so on. Ruby is aghast to discover that she doesn't know everything after all, but Dean offers her subdued comfort. Happy endings await almost everyone—except for readers of this nobly preachy snifflefest.

The best-selling author of tearjerkers like Angel Falls (2000) serves up yet another mountain of mush, topped off with syrupy platitudes about life and love.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-609-60737-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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