Though a minor contribution to the larger literature of World War II, a strange, heartfelt account of someone who served a...

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DEVIATION

Italian writer D’Eramo recounts her experiences in Germany in the closing months of World War II.

Falling in the same subgenre as Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, D’Eramo’s novel is really thinly fictionalized autobiography. When her father, a devoted fascist, removed her family to the Alps following the collapse of Mussolini’s regime, D’Eramo threw herself into the fascist cause, volunteering to join a labor corps in Germany. After she had a chance to study the involuntary members of her unit, Russians and members of political resistance groups among them, all of whom mistrusted her as a true believer in the cause, she decided to head home in disgust with the Hitler regime only to be sent in a labor detail to Dachau. While working to rescue survivors of a bombing in Mainz, a wall collapsed on her; she writes that a German soldier was hit in the head by a flying brick and then, after asking to see his children, “slumped to the ground, killed instantly.” Told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person, D’Eramo’s account addresses not just wartime experiences, but also her subsequent life in a wheelchair, paralyzed by the accident and dependent on drugs; some of the episodes she recounts are as hellish as anything she experienced in the labor camps, as when, writing of her addiction to Valium, she notes, “How could I have forgotten that it was the basic component of the truth serum used by the Nazis in Dachau?” In her dreams she may be running, fleet-footed, toward or away from that crumbling wall in Mainz, “truly like the others, thrashed, spat upon, just like them,” but her realities are somber and rueful, the disillusionment of a 19-year-old girl who survived into old age but never forgot that youthful indiscretion. The book resembles Malaparte’s in some of its hallucinatory aspects, but it also recalls work as various as Iris Origo’s War in Val D’Orcia and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Castle to Castle.

Though a minor contribution to the larger literature of World War II, a strange, heartfelt account of someone who served a role few would confess to.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-13845-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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