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HOUSE OF FOSSILS

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

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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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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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