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THE SWIMMERS

The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.

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Having concentrated on one family in her first novel, then eschewed individual protagonists for a collective “we” in her second, Otsuka now blends the two approaches, shifting from an almost impersonal, wide-lens view of society to an increasingly narrow focus on a specific mother-daughter relationship.

The book begins as tart social comedy. A narrative “we” represents various swimmers frequenting an underground community pool. A microcosm of America, they remain mostly anonymous, although a few names are dropped in from time to time as a kind of punctuation. The swimmers are fleshed out as a group by multiple lists detailing a wide range of occupations and social roles, motivations to swim, swimming styles, and eventually reactions to a mysterious crack that appears suddenly on the pool floor. Initially dismissed as inconsequential by the experts, the crack morphs, Covid-like, into more and more cracks until panicky authorities announce the pool will close altogether. What seems a minor act of grace on the final day of operation—the lifeguard generously allows a memory-impaired woman named Alice to swim one extra lap—leaves the reader unprepared for the sharp swerve the novel now makes. Alice takes center stage, her cognitive and eventual physical deterioration viewed from multiple angles. The narrative voice is now addressing itself to "you," Alice’s daughter, a Japanese American novelist with an obvious resemblance to the author, observing Alice’s decline in slightly removed, writerly detail as Alice’s memories drift from random, repetitive, and oddly specific to more random, less frequent, and increasingly vague. Institutional care follows, with the new “we” of the narrative voice addressing Alice in cold bureaucratic lingo that represents the nursing facility in a snarky, predictable, and disappointingly un-nuanced sketch of institutional care. As Alice fades further, the daughter returns. She berates herself for the ways she failed her mother. But dredging up her own memories, she also begins to recognize the love her parents felt for each other and for her.

The combination of social satire with an intimate portrait of loss and grief is stylistically ambitious and deeply moving.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32133-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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