A novel that sometimes struggles under its own weight but that’s well worth reading.


Marlantes (What it Is Like to Go To War, 2011, etc.) moves from the jungles of Vietnam to the old-growth forests of Washington in this saga of labor and love.

It’s the late summer of 1901, and Aino Koski is learning to read and write courtesy of a schoolteacher boarding with her family in the Finnish backwoods, his textbook of choice The Communist Manifesto. Soon she’s a socialist, and so she will remain, even as her neighbors and siblings follow other beliefs and courses. Escaping the Russian occupation of her country, Aino and others in her community move across the waters to Washington state, where, despite her hope that America will prove a socialist paradise, any utopianism is worn away by the realities of endless hard work in the forests and mills: “Aksel’s hands," Marlantes writes, “work-hardened since he was a boy, still blistered from the nine-pound splitting maul and eight-foot-long bucksaw.” Aino devotes herself to labor activism while members of the Finnish immigrant community work, build families and lives, grow old, and die. Aino hardly has time to take a breath, but she still finds room for agonies of secret-charged love that stretch out over the decades, until fate finally allows some measure of happiness: “He leaned over and smothered his face in her hair,” Marlantes writes poetically of Aino’s husband-to-be, who has followed a hard path of his own, “and the pain and the disappointment poured out as he said her name over and over." The story is long and has its longueurs, but Marlantes carefully builds an epic world in the forests of Scandinavia and the Northwest, taking pains to round out each character, especially the long-suffering Aino. Drawing on his family history, he weaves themes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic—as he writes, the paterfamilias has named all his children after the mythological heroes and heroines in its pages—as well as real-world events in the annals of the early-20th-century labor movement.

A novel that sometimes struggles under its own weight but that’s well worth reading.

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2538-5

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

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

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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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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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