One of modern literature's greatest curmudgeons appears to be going soft in his old age. There's still some of the characteristic Amis misanthropy and plenty of his mocking wit here, but this thoroughly enjoyable novel seems to suggest that, for the most part, all's right with an imperfect world. Much of the magnanimity emanates from one Harry Caldecote, a twice-divorced former librarian who lives with his widowed sister in London and dreams of a sinecure from the sultan of Brunei. Not without his faults, Harry often provides "helping hands for hopless people"—an assortment of friends and relations who have a difficult time fending for themselves. There's Bunty Streatfield, the lesbian daughter of Harry's second wife, who subjects herself to the cruelties of her violent, man-hating mate, Popsy, a nasty piece of work. Bunty's estranged husband, Desmond, pops in now and then, hopelessly in love with his wife despite Harry's somber advice. There's Fiona, the niece of Harry's first wife, a drop-down-drunk in her 30s who feels a victim of inevitable fate. And then there's poor old Freddy, Harry's henpecked brother, a gentle fool who lives in his own world, watched over by his shewish wife, Desiree. A harridan in the Amis tradition, Desiree is a "third-rate genteelist bullshitter" who accounts for her husband's every breath, supposedly on account of his fragile prostate. One by one, Harry gently helps them all mend their lives, even as his own takes a few unexpected turns—his longtime mistress returns to her husband after 19 years, and a real plum of a job in the US is his for the taking. A series of crises reminds Harry how much he likes the responsibilities at home as well as the companionship of his agreeable sister, Clare. What made Amis' Booker-winning The Old Devils (1987) a delight is also evident here—more about sex and booze among septuagenarians most of all. Lots of wonderfully gratuitous gibes at Amis' familiar betes noires brighten an already luminous work.

Pub Date: June 1, 1990

ISBN: 0671708163

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Summit/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1990

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940

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