Translator Steven deserves almost as much praise as does the remarkable author of this enormous, challenging, life-affirming...

THE HALF BROTHER

Deracinated, incomplete people undertake interlocking quests for human connection and self-realization.

This epic Norwegian novel, a major European bestseller and prizewinner, is a complex mosaic tracing the lives of several generations of the Nilsens, a fragmented Oslo family, throughout the WWII years and afterward. Christensen’s narrator is Barnum Nilsen, a physically stunted, alcoholic, melancholic scriptwriter who attempts to make sense of his hollow life by assembling a context for it from stories half-told and imperfectly remembered by his distracted forebears and single estranged sibling. The latter is his older half-brother Fred: the product of their mother Vera’s rape by a German soldier, who grew up an angry malcontent (and, incidentally, accomplished boxer), a willfully mute vagabond bent on understanding himself by researching the misadventures of his great-grandfather Willem, vanished during a voyage to Greenland. The former are the unstable Vera herself, her alcoholic mother Boletta, and her maternal grandmother (“the Old One”), a former silent-film star lost in memories of her bygone youth, beauty, and fame. Another narrative and thematic strand explores the past of Barnum’s father Arnold, an itinerant con man who charmed the ingenuous Vera with tales of his youthful adventures, climaxed by joining a circus. It is in fact the lesson Arnold learned under the Big Top (“Imagination is the greatest thing there is!”) that fuels Barnum’s passion to examine every facet of his own past and heritage, in effect curing his own depression and despair by freeing and exercising his imagination. Christensen’s intense saga (with intermittent echoes of such ambitious predecessors as Grass’s The Tin Drum and Michel Tournier’s The Ogre) is both an arduous read (owing to numerous long run-on sentences) and a thrilling and stimulating black comedy that shows, unforgettably, how art—and understanding—are shaped out of pain and suffering.

Translator Steven deserves almost as much praise as does the remarkable author of this enormous, challenging, life-affirming masterpiece.

Pub Date: May 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-55970-715-1

Page Count: 696

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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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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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

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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