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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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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A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

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THE NIGHT WATCHMAN

In this unhurried, kaleidoscopic story, the efforts of Native Americans to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s come intimately, vividly to life.

Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau was part of the first generation born on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. As the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the mid-1950s, he had to use all the political savvy he could muster to dissuade Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins (whom Erdrich calls a “pompous racist” in her afterword) from reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. Erdrich's grandfather is the inspiration for her novel’s protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk, the night watchman of the title. He gets his last name from the muskrat, "the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent," and Thomas is a hard worker himself: In between his rounds at a local factory, at first uncertain he can really help his tribe, he organizes its members and writes letters to politicians, "these official men with their satisfied soft faces," opposing Watkins' efforts at "terminating" their reservation. Erdrich reveals Thomas' character at night when he's alone; still reliable and self-sacrificing, he becomes more human, like the night he locks himself out of the factory, almost freezes to death, and encounters a vision of beings, "filmy and brightly indistinct," descending from the stars, including Jesus Christ, who "looked just like the others." Patrice Paranteau is Thomas' niece, and she’s saddled with a raging alcoholic father and financial responsibility for her mother and brother. Her sister, Vera, deserts the reservation for Minneapolis; in the novel’s most suspenseful episode, Patrice boldly leaves home for the first time to find her sister, although all signs point to a bad outcome for Vera. Patrice grows up quickly as she navigates the city’s underbelly. Although the stakes for the residents of Turtle Mountain will be apocalyptic if their tribe is terminated, the novel is more an affectionate sketchbook of the personalities living at Turtle Mountain than a tightly plotted arc that moves from initial desperation to political triumph. Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returns as a ghost who troubles Thomas in his night rounds, for example; Patrice sleeps close to a bear and is vastly changed; two young men battle for Patrice’s heart.

A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-267118-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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