A strong collection of stories connected by deep Irish American roots.

THE TOPOGRAPHY OF HIDDEN STORIES

Irish Americans deal with challenges and opportunities in the 20th century.

In this short story collection, MacDonnell follows a large cast of Irish American characters through the ups and downs of the second half of the 20th century. In “Whistle-Stop,” a child draws her parents’ ire when she absorbs their adulation of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. “Red Stain on Yellow Dress” follows a young pregnant woman traveling to get an illegal abortion. In “Diana’s Dresses,” the setting is the late 1990s as a mother and daughter deal with questions of mortality while visiting a traveling exhibition of Princess Diana’s wardrobe. Problems of life and death also appear in “Dancing With NED,” in which a seriously ill woman’s husband and sister accompany her to an oncologist’s office, “a pinnacle of the health care system, a place above bed pans, barf buckets and blood, the stench of unhealing wounds, the fearful cries of the dying.” The author’s characters cover a range of socio-economic classes, but nearly all are of Irish descent, with many having roots on the South Shore of Boston. “Soy Paco,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, is the exception, though its theme and tone allow it to fit easily into the rest of the collection. While there are moments of tenderness, like the bonds a new mom unexpectedly finds with her own mother in “Violets,” violence, abuse, and dysfunction more often characterize the volume’s families. Those who fail to conform are often pressured or ostracized, beatings are doled out, and a pacifist mother makes her son throw away the violent toys he received for Christmas in “Weapons of War.”

Despite the stories’ bleak aspects, the book is an enjoyable read. MacDonnell’s writing is frequently elegant, full of vivid metaphors (“His sisters, three pale silent women, who’d nod and sigh and press their palms together like Daddy had just spoken The Word, and that The Word had come to dwell among us”) and descriptive language (“She sees her mother surrounded by lengths of these fabrics: satin, tulle, taffeta, shantung; her mother, a hard bright thing, a stone, in this rainbow of luscious color”). The plots are both familiar and unpredictable, drawing readers in while challenging their preconceptions. In addition to themes of family, loyalty, and independence that resonate from one tale to another, the work is also full of minor details that recur throughout. Three stories, set in different times and places, feature a baby sister named Caitlin; Frank Sinatra songs provide much of the soundtrack; older women wear “polyester pull-on pants”; and two tales are narrated by women living in buildings known as the Ten Commandments in the 1970s Bronx. Many of the protagonists are unnamed, adding to the repetitive nature of the stories as well as the sense that the discrete tales blend into a single narrative of a collective experience. Fans of Andre Dubus III and Jennifer Haigh will find much to appreciate in MacDonnell’s exploration of a narrow slice of the American experience.

A strong collection of stories connected by deep Irish American roots.

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 2021

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Fomite Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

HORSE

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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