A brilliantly written but uneven and sometimes aimless saga of dysfunction.

SENTENCING SILENCE

A young woman works through psychosexual trauma with lurid excess and much introspection in this sprawling debut novel.

Nesbitt, a poet and fiction writer, tells the story of June Barrett, a woman in her 20s in Reagan-era Chicago who undergoes several drastic changes in lifestyle and persona. She begins as the wife of up-and-coming young architect Cam as they settle into a well-heeled yuppiehood. Cracks soon appear in their facade: Cam begins castigating June for supposed hookups but also pressures her to start swinging with two other couples. When he develops a cocaine addiction, he grows controlling and even violent, prodding June to consider leaving the marriage. She does that with a vengeance in the novel’s second part, working as a prostitute under the name Reni. Her life becomes a picaresque of tawdry “dates” and bachelor parties, described in graphic but prosaic detail, and she dabbles in check fraud, booze, and drugs. Part three shifts gears again, with Reni moving out of prostitution and, as Sandy, into a giddy lesbian live-in relationship with a Vietnamese-American artist named Mary Colleen “Coolly” Shea. Their seemingly sparkling romance darkens into paranoia, abandonment, and a downward spiral that ends with Sandy sinking into a coma after she is run over by a bus. The complex narrative intercuts Sandy and Coolly’s story with scenes of Sandy/June in the hospital struggling with rehab and pondering her fraught family history of abuse. Nesbitt weaves a Joycean tapestry in the novel’s 502 pages, replacing Dublin with an atmospheric, sometimes nightmarish Chicago stocked with sharply observed characters, from a gay antiques shop owner to a motherly diner waitress, all surrounded by the labyrinthine ruminations and memories of June and her alter-egos. The author is a superb writer with a fine ear for dialogue, an eye for setting and behavior, and a talent for lyrical prose that’s evocative and sensual even when it’s abstract. (“Hope was not an obsidian mountain to be scaled, not a bog of sewage to be drowning in, but the melted snow of a river rushing with abandon into a clear vernal pool; I could find inordinate joy in grocery bag dresses tied with jump rope; I could tell boys I wasn’t afraid of worms.”) Unfortunately, the story often seems thin and disjointed; while the changes June endures are heavily foreshadowed, they don’t feel well motivated. The June-Cam plot bogs down in décor (“I learned quickly…to marry style periods…like the leather couches Cam wanted for the living room with the Art Nouveau sofa table I found”). They seem like a mismatched couple whose breakup is more a relief than a tragedy. Reni’s odyssey as a prostitute is the book’s best part; her adventures merit the author’s literary flair and have an invigorating thread of grotesque comedy. (“Hello, bay-be. Rest that hand now, reinforcements have arrived,” declares Reni’s brassy partner Kay upon meeting a sad-sack client.) Part Three’s Sandy-Coolly romance is unconvincing, sunny, and blissful until it’s not. Throughout the volume run intermittent meditations on June’s childhood and family relationships, which seem unpleasant but only mildly dysfunctional—and not very gripping—until fragmented revelations gel toward the tale’s end. As disturbing as they are, they come too late to weld June’s/Reni’s/Sandy’s experiences into a dramatic whole.

A brilliantly written but uneven and sometimes aimless saga of dysfunction.

Pub Date: April 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5439-5970-3

Page Count: 524

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: July 11, 2019

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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

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CIRCE

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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