The revelations redeem some of the stilted writing and the characters’ senses of self-importance, as the reader comes to...

AARON'S LEAP

A Czech novel about art, death and sex set against the backdrop of the Holocaust and never-ending war.

The framing of the author’s first novel to be translated into English initially appears to be unnecessarily complicated. The main narrative thread concerns the life and death of Berta Altmann, an underrecognized artist, inspirational teacher and Communist who died at Auschwitz. Her story has inspired a documentary film project, which begins the novel with a visit to the 88-year-old Kristýna, a better-known artist who learned from Berta and has her diaries, whose cooperation is reluctant at best. “[D]ead Jews are good business,” she reflects cynically of the project. Because of Kristýna’s reluctance to consent to more than a terse interview, the filmmakers enlist her granddaughter, Milena, to help on the project. There’s an immediate attraction between the beautiful Milena and the cameraman, the Aaron of the title. And then we get to Berta’s story, which dominates the middle of the novel and which shows her coming-of-age through phases similar to those Kristýna would subsequently experience and Milena will. Further complicating the novel are the infidelities that will connect them all. There are all sorts of grand pronouncements: “Art is a path toward the light, to the emancipation of man; this is something I believe in, something for which I’m willing to sacrifice everything.” And dialogue: “Unhappiness is like an illness. No one can cure me of fate.” But when Kristýna belatedly ruminates that “[e]verything is pulling me downward and backward,” the novel’s structure seems less arbitrary than it did at the outset.

The revelations redeem some of the stilted writing and the characters’ senses of self-importance, as the reader comes to connect with and care for these characters as more than mouthpieces for history.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-934137-70-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

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/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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