MOTHER DOLL

Like the Russian nesting dolls that inspired it, this novel reveals layer after layer of poignant delights.

A pregnant woman is contacted, via a medium, by her dead great-grandmother, who was a Russian revolutionary.

Zhenia, frankly, is a mess. Feeling like a “helpless passenger in her own life,” she works as a medical translator for Russians in Los Angeles. Her young marriage is wobbly: She has a history of infidelity and can’t shake the feeling that her husband would rather have married someone else. Back home in Boston, Zhenia’s beloved grandmother Vera is near death, in a near-vegetative state. Into this chaos, two events avalanche: First, Zhenia ends up pregnant by accident. Then, out of the blue, she’s contacted by a New York psychic named Paul, who has a proposition for her. He’s being urgently contacted by the spirit of Zhenia’s mysterious great-grandmother Irina—Vera’s mother—and he wants to relay her narrative to Zhenia in Russian, which he doesn’t speak, so she can translate it into English. Apekina alternates between Zhenia’s and Paul’s increasingly desperate circumstances and the story that Irina tells about her own life with Paul as the mouthpiece. (Literally: Paul crosses into the “cloud of ancestral grief” that Irina exists in with a bunch of other chattering souls, and she opens his mouth and yells into his throat to tell her story to Zhenia.) The secrets that Irina reveals about her coming-of-age in a Jewish family during the Russian Revolution force Zhenia to re-examine her past, her present, and her future. In lesser hands, this narrative nesting-doll structure might have been merely a clever way of parsing intergenerational trauma or the impulse to explore family history as loved ones are born or pass away. But Apekina’s keen portrayals of morally complicated women transcend any gimmickry, and her depictions of Petrograd in the early 20th century feel startlingly present.

Like the Russian nesting dolls that inspired it, this novel reveals layer after layer of poignant delights.

Pub Date: March 12, 2024

ISBN: 9781419770951

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2024

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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