ENGLAND, ENGLAND

A mischievous satire on the marketing of illusion and a trenchant analysis of a rootless woman’s interrupted pursuit of authenticity are joined in a highly original way in this consummately entertaining novel, the eighth by the dependably clever British author. The major actions occur in an economically depleted near-future England, which almost gratefully succumbs to the utopian blandishments of Sir Jack Pitman, a visionary entrepreneur (and Falstaffian compound of Rupert Murdoch and billionaire Guy Grand of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian). Sir Jack’s “Project” is a reconstruction of places and scenes familiar from English history, populated by actors portraying equally familiar figures (historical and fictional), situated on the Isle of Wight for the pleasure of sightseers who’d otherwise have to visit multiple real places. Barnes (Cross Channel, 1996, etc.) has a fine time devising the unforeseen consequences of Sir Jack’s scheme (the current King, on retainer as an incarnation of himself, is an oversexed moron given to harassing the likes of “Nell Gwynn” and “Connie Chatterley”; “Dr. Johnson” is a clinical depressive; “Robin Hood and His Merrie Men” inconsiderately rebel; and so forth). Tables are briefly turned when Sir Jack’s “Appointed Cynic” Martha Cochrane uncovers evidence that her employer’s monthly visits to his “Auntie May” are in fact sexual adventures during which his infancy is “replicated”—but Barnes’s deft plot has several further twists lurking nearby. And, to turn the screw even tighter, the Huxleyan portrayal of “England, England” (Sir Jack’s name for his “Project”) is framed by extended scenes depicting Martha’s troubled childhood (a history she scorns to remember) and her old age after “The Island” has literally replaced England and the question of what is and is not real in her experience remains unanswered. A provocative dystopian fable that’s also a superb vehicle for Barnes’s unfailingly fiendish riffs on contemporary political, economic, and sexual underhandedness and overkill.

Pub Date: May 10, 1999

ISBN: 0-375-40582-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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