A finely wrought depiction of turbulence, perhaps too faithfully reflecting the enervating pace of these privileged lives.

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THE BOOK OF LOSS

First-novelist Jedamus chronicles courtly infighting in tenth-century Japan.

As depicted in this fictitious diary, life is dreary for ladies-in-waiting at the Heian Emperor’s court. They spend their days detangling their floor-length hair, choosing silks for their voluminous robes, composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, applying lead-based products to their faces and teeth and gossiping about their fellow courtiers. Since they can’t be in the presence of men unless concealed by a screen, one wonders how they flirt, much less tryst with their lovers. Somehow, they manage, igniting rivalry between the unnamed narrator and Izumi, a poet, over Heian Japan’s own Don Juan, Kanesuke. As if sowing discord between two former best friends wasn’t enough, Kanesuke seduced the Vestal of Ise, the Emperor’s favorite daughter, causing her to be recalled from her post as resident virgin at a shrine. For this he’s earned banishment to a remote rocky shore, but he continues to foment female unrest with artfully presented missives delivered by courier. The narrator, resentful of the more effusive letters lovelier Izumi receives, spreads a false rumor about Kanesuke and the vestal’s half-sister Sadako, causing Sadako’s disgrace. Hostilities escalate as Izumi exposes the narrator’s calumny and the latter seeks solace with a younger man, I Ching practitioner Masato. The narrator finds she is pregnant by Masato, but children are an untenable encumbrance to a court lady; she already has a son being raised elsewhere. Political instability and pestilence disrupt court indolence. Crown Prince Reizei dies of smallpox. Kanesuke’s return from exile is imminent when Izumi learns to her horror that he has fallen ill. Jedamus’s prose, like a prolonged haiku, captures the Japanese obsession with subtle natural detail and, except for odd Western borrowings like “vestal,” “archbishop” and “rosary,” serves historical verisimilitude well. Sybaritic indulgence and intrigue dominate until the diary’s disordered end signals abrupt flight. Be advised to read the prologue last.

A finely wrought depiction of turbulence, perhaps too faithfully reflecting the enervating pace of these privileged lives.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-312-34907-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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