Oe (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, 2002, etc.) is a deeply flawed great writer, and Somersault, alas, is not one of...


An intriguing but enormously overinflated 1999 novel, Oe’s first original fiction since receiving a 1994 Nobel Prize, concerns an austere, embattled, and eventually self-destructive religious cult.

The tedious first half details the dissolution of the cult (which act is labeled “the Somersault”) by its founders, known only as Patron and Guide, when its radical wing threatened a takeover of a nuclear power plant (one hears echoes here, of course, of the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways). It also introduces and develops the characters of Guide, stricken with an aneurysm and hospitalized; Patron, who creates a new cult (the Church of the New Man) ten years after the Somersault, when radicals kidnap and cause the death of Guide; and Patron’s acolytes and underlings: his publicist Ogi, his female secretary Dancer, and two men Dancer recruits—Kizu, a cancer-riddled middle-aged painter, and Ikuo, the muscular, brooding young man who becomes Kizu’s protégé, model, and lover. The second half records “the Church’s” development as a thriving rustic commune (whose beginnings Oe describes very skillfully) and presents a series of increasingly complex relationships and tensions. Newly prominent figures include “radical” physician Dr. Koga, a brain-damaged musical savant (another fictionalization of Oe’s own son Hikari), the narrowly fervent “Quiet Women,” and the menacing leader of the ardent “Young Fireflies,” teenaged true believer Gii. The final pages, embracing an ambitious summer conference and “Spirit Festival” and climaxing with a violent sacrifice, vibrate with dramatic energy. But it’s too little, too late: Patron’s interminable “sermons” articulating his cults’ history and aims have long since drained the life out of the narrative. Other characters, too, talk much more than they act. Only the figure of Kizu—artist, sensualist, wavering untrue believer—justifies the implied comparisons suggested by numerous pointed allusions to (Oe’s probable specific inspiration) the later novels of Dostoevsky.

Oe (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, 2002, etc.) is a deeply flawed great writer, and Somersault, alas, is not one of his triumphs.

Pub Date: March 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-8021-1738-4

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...


Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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