Nizam’s mission exposes the contradictions in the American presence in Afghanistan; the Greek connection is hardly necessary.

THE WATCH

Pressing parallels to Greek drama, this Indian author’s ambitious but poorly structured third novel is about an Afghanistan War episode. 

The setting is a U.S. combat outpost in Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold. The guys are spooked. An ambush in the surrounding mountains has claimed two of them. That was followed by an insurgent attack during a blinding sandstorm, leaving four Americans dead and four wounded. The Afghan National Army soldiers abandoned their positions. The next day, a strange apparition approaches the base perimeter. It’s covered in a burqa and is pushing a cart. Man or woman? Suicide bomber or decoy? There’s no suspense for the reader, for the apparition, a young woman called Nizam, has already introduced herself in the opening section. Her family, returning from a wedding party, was killed by a U.S. bomb, leaving herself and her brother Yusuf, who led the revenge attack on the base. Yusuf was not a Talib but an anti-American freedom fighter. The wounded Nizam, her legs reduced to stumps, has come to bury him. The American captain, awaiting orders from battalion headquarters, refuses to release the body. So there’s a standoff. But when the soldiers hear Nizam playing her lute, they are spellbound: She has won their hearts and minds but not the captain’s, and her mission will end tragically. There’s material here for a novella but not more. The author inflates it in various ways, including stateside flashbacks. Long quotations from Sophocles’ Antigone, in which a burial is key, bookend his story. One lieutenant, Frobenius, is a classicist who has enlisted for old-fashioned reasons of honor, and his journal is laced with classical allusions. He sees the Pashtuns, with their concepts of honor and shame, as descendants of the Greeks. There is much desultory chatter among the grunts, ethnically diverse in the old war-story tradition, but little action, apart from that early firefight. 

Nizam’s mission exposes the contradictions in the American presence in Afghanistan; the Greek connection is hardly necessary.

Pub Date: June 5, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-95589-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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

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CIRCE

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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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