An ambitious debut is bogged down in banalities and too-cute narrative tricks.

THE WAITING ROOM

The daughter of Holocaust survivors contends with present-day violence in Israel and Palestine.

When Dina wakes up one morning to radio warnings of a possible terrorist attack, she’s both worried and surprised: normally Haifa, her home, doesn’t see much violence. Dina is a doctor as well as the mother of a young boy, with a baby on the way. She’s afraid to let her son go off to school, but what else can she do? She kisses her son and husband goodbye and heads off to work. Kaminsky (Stitching Things Together, 2012, etc.) is also, like Dina, a doctor. She’s an evocative storyteller, and she’s sensitive to the intersections between physical and emotional pain and the way that memory intrudes upon daily reality. But Kaminsky may have bitten off more than she can chew in her first novel. This isn’t just a story about contemporary violence in Israel and Palestine. Dina is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. After enduring life in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, her mother and father fled to Australia, where they raised their daughter. Reared on her mother’s stories of horror and war, Dina can’t seem to escape violence, no matter how far she flees. She spends much of the novel, which takes place over the course of a day, bickering with the ghost of her mother. As she drives to work or to her son’s school or to the shoemaker to fix a broken heel, her mother’s ghost tries to hold court. “Did I tell you how we slept in the same wooden bunk all those nights in Bergen-Belsen?” she will say. “You need to know these things, Dina.” But Dina is impatient and busy. “Not now, mother. I have to get back to work,” she says. “We can talk about this later.” Eventually, as the violence in her mother’s past begins to converge with the violence in Haifa, Dina is forced to contend with her mother. But their bickering seems more precious than moving, and it becomes tiresome. Then, Kaminsky’s prose is clotted with mundane details that detract from the heart of the novel. These asides—about putting on makeup, purchasing apples, etc.—are not only distracting, but they’re also boring, and they slow down the narrative. Dina’s story might have benefited from a little less schtick and a little more honest reckoning.

An ambitious debut is bogged down in banalities and too-cute narrative tricks.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-249047-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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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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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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