A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into...

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CELESTIAL BODIES

Omani author Alharthi's novel, the first by a woman from that country to be translated into English, won the 2019 International Man Booker Prize with its sweeping story of generational and societal change.

The book opens with a betrothal in a well-to-do Omani family. Mayya, a serious girl who excels at sewing, obediently marries the son of Merchant Sulayman although she's secretly in love with a young student just returned from England. Later she surprises everyone by naming her firstborn daughter London. The story alternates between third-person chapters and ones narrated by Mayya's husband, Abdallah, a businessman whose childhood was marred by his father's cruelty and mother's mysterious death. Through the complex, interwoven histories of the two principal families and their households and their town of al-Awafi, we witness Oman's shift from a slave-owning, rural, deeply patriarchal society to one in which a girl with the unlikely name of London can become a doctor, marry for love, and obtain a divorce. The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions. Abdallah was largely raised by his father's slave Zarifa, whose mother gave birth to her on the day slavery was supposedly abolished at the 1926 Slavery Convention in Geneva. Zarifa is sold as a teenager by Shaykh Said to Merchant Sulayman and later married off to a slave kidnapped from Africa who screams "from the depths of his sleep, We are free people, free!" Both her husband and son leave Oman, and although Zarifa eventually follows, her heart remains in al-Awafi. The narrative jumps among a large and clamorous cast of characters as well as back and forth in time, a technique that reinforces the sense of past and present overlapping. In an image that captures the tension between old and new, a family uses its satellite dish as a trough for livestock. Salima, Mayya's mother, herself a kidnapped teenage bride, thinks sadly as she prepares the next of her daughters for her traditional arranged marriage, "We raise them so that strangers can take them away." But the daughter in question, Mayya's sister Asma, welcomes wedlock, because "marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home."

A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-948226-94-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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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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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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