We’ll say it again: Saramago is the finest living novelist, bar none.

THE CAVE

Far from resting on his laurels, Portugal’s 1998 Nobel laureate, now 80, brings us yet another ruefully comic and disturbing allegorical tale—a worthy companion to its superlative immediate predecessors Blindness (1998) and All the Names (2000).

The central figure is sixtyish widower Cipriano Algor, who lives with his married daughter Marta and her husband in an unnamed village not far from the commercial metropolis known only as the Center, to which he travels back and forth, bringing the pots and jugs he fashions out of clay to be sold. One day the “head of the buying department” informs Cipriano that his creations are no longer needed, and his unsold ones must be reclaimed. Acting on Marta’s suggestion, Cipriano turns to creating small human figurines, which are initially accepted, but then summarily rejected, by the Center. Out of work, “useful” only to the younger widow he’s attracted to and to a devoted stray dog (which he whimsically names “Found”) that seems to have come to him “from another world,” Cipriano prepares for retirement within the Center—until his accidental discovery of the truth hidden in its recesses reveals the significance of several haunting recurring images (smoke from what seems to be a crematorium, a house with a view of a cemetery, his dream of “a stone statue sitting on a stone bench looking at a stone wall”) and sends him on a final enigmatic journey. Saramago’s brilliant use of hurtling run-on sentences and thoughtful, mischievous narrative omniscience creates a richly suggestive text in which the plight of an ordinary man subject to an indifferent bureaucracy is juxtaposed with the theme of creation and its ramifications and responsibilities (it’s repeatedly emphasized that both Cipriano’s creations and we ourselves are “made” of clay) and the deeply ironic idea of a creative force that has become obsolete in a world where all is mandated, controlled, and regimented.

We’ll say it again: Saramago is the finest living novelist, bar none.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-15-100414-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2002

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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