An engrossing tale of fractured families trying to cobble their identities back together.

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HOUSE OF FOSSILS

A Haitian American immigrant ponders her life and traumatized homeland in this novel about exile and return.

Phipps tells the story of Io, a mixed-race woman born to an affluent Creole family in Port-au-Prince, as she consolidates her life as an artist and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while still feeling the tug of her past in Haiti. The loose-limbed, episodic narrative unfolds over a decade, starting in 2004 with a dreamy prelude in which Io vacations on the Nova Scotia coast, stays in a strange house full of fossils, and meets a mysterious little girl who is somehow connected to the celebrated ghost ship Mary Celeste. The tale moves on to Io’s legal wrangles with her ex-husband and her estrangement from their adopted Haitian daughter, Eveline; her new marriage to a kind Englishman named Thomas; and a tense Alaskan cruise with her sister, Europa, an eccentric lost soul still living in Haiti who bears emotional scars from brutal relationships with men. A family reunion in Florida reconnects Io with her cagey, charismatic Aunt Rose and other relatives and lets her revisit her socially prominent clan’s history before it was driven out after Rose’s husband was assassinated by Haitian dictator François Duvalier. The book closes with Io’s return to Port-au-Prince, where she takes in the city’s squalor, tensions, and faded glory. She recalls her own narrow escape from a military death squad hired to kill her by a tenant behind on her rent, witnesses a confrontation in which her cousin almost shoots a thief, and goes to the still gorgeous cathedral.

Phipps, a Haitian American poet and novelist, broadens Io’s experiences into a troubled portrait of social fissures. Io lays claim to a legacy of oppression because of the suffering that Haitians endured from European colonialism and slavery. Yet she’s uneasily aware of her own racial privilege, of the seething resentments dividing the light-skinned, Creole elite she belongs to from the poor, black Haitians that her family employs as servants. She feels this antagonism may have poisoned her relationship with Eveline, a black girl born in a slum. The vibrant novel uncoils in rich ruminations and conversations sprinkled with nuggets of history and cultural lore. Sometimes the author’s prose is stark in its depiction of Haitian reality and the hardness it breeds in the poor and rich. (“Beggars swarm around the car, knocking wildly at all windows,” Io observes on the ride in from the Port-au-Prince airport. They “would instantly start slapping and fighting off each other to get the first grab at whatever morsel is handed out, then pummel the one who got it, snatch it from him and run. You’ll lose your arm and anything on it if you try to give alms.”) But Phipps can also shift into a haunting lyricism, as when Io imagines a shipwreck, “feeling the ancient despair of one woman drowned, huddled onto herself, detached like a single musical note etched on a dark green, empty sheet, her disheveled long hair entangled with seaweed that wrapped around her naked white form in long strips resembling the final dress of a mummified being.” The result is an imaginative meditation on Haiti’s beauties and discontents and the mark they leave on a writer’s soul.

An engrossing tale of fractured families trying to cobble their identities back together.

Pub Date: Dec. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-950743-16-2

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Calumet Editions

Review Posted Online: March 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2020

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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THE GLASS HOTEL

A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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