Sharply observed, bitingly witty yet emotionally generous, and as ominous as the times deserve.


Benjamin Trotter, friends, and family return (The Closed Circle, 2005, etc.) to observe, mostly with dismay, the run-up to Brexit in a divided Britain.

In April 2010, just after the funeral of his mother, Benjamin listens impassively for what is obviously not the first time as his father, Colin, rails about “political correctness” ruining everything once great about Britain. Ugly though usually veiled comments by others make it clear that those words are used to denigrate anything that acknowledges England is no longer an all-white, all-Christian nation; immigrants and people of color make easy scapegoats in the anxious years after the economic meltdown. As the narrative moves toward the Brexit vote in 2016, Coe, with his usual acuity, tells the story of a collective meltdown through its impact on individuals. Benjamin’s journalist friend, Doug, spars with vacuous Tory flak Nigel as David Cameron’s government blunders toward the referendum it thinks it can manipulate to its own ends. Benjamin’s niece, Sophie, an art historian, finds her new marriage to sweet, totally unintellectual Ian strained when the promotion he’d counted on goes to a nonwhite colleague and he starts listening to his genteelly racist mother, Helena. Helena is hardly worse than Doug’s daughter, Coriander, a nihilistic teen who incarnates every cliché about sanctimonious ultra-leftists. Coe’s marvelous humor is still in evidence, but it’s got a decided edge: There's a cruise on which elderly passengers keep dying, inept middle-aged sex, and a bemused friend’s suggestion, when confronted with Benjamin’s decades-in-the-making mess of a novel, “Have you ever thought of taking up teaching?” Actually, a very slimmed-down version gets Benjamin longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the semioptimistic touches (he loses) that include Nigel’s experiencing something almost like an attack of honesty post-Brexit and Benjamin’s sister Lois’ finally overcoming her PTSD from a 1974 Irish Republican Army bombing—because things are so much worse now. Coe’s empathy for even the most flawed people and a bedrock, albeit eroding, faith in human decency keep his text from being bitter, but it is deeply sad.

Sharply observed, bitingly witty yet emotionally generous, and as ominous as the times deserve.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-65647-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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