You have to work at it, but it’s a trip well worth taking.

ONLY REVOLUTIONS

The daunting maze explored in Danielewski’s Borgesian first novel, House of Leaves (2000), only hinted at the depths to be plumbed in its intimidatingly innovative successor.

It’s a love story, road novel and paean to untrammeled freedom, presented in dual free-verse narratives spoken by Sam and Hailey, two 16-year-old vagabonds who embark on a mythic and allegorical journey across America, in a succession of variously acquired automobiles, during an expanding time period that stretches from the American Civil War to the immediate present. Rebels and malcontents, they repeatedly indulge in Whitmanesque, Rabelaisian arias (“I’m The World which / The Mountain descends from and / I laugh because it tickles”), while proclaiming their allegiance to nothing but each other (“Liberty and Love are one”), and eluding or battling characters emblematic of entrenched interests, convention and complacency (e.g., “Mad Robber Barons,” “Hoovercrats”). The publisher helpfully suggests reading eight pages of Sam’s story, then flipping the volume upside-down and reversing it, for eight pages in Hailey’s voice, until the two narratives meet in the middle of the book. Further complications arise from chronological enumerations of historical events on each page’s margins and versified comments on every page presented, upside-down, at the bottom of said page. Self-indulgence? Surely. But there’s a real story here, and a persuasive sense that the couple’s wild ride is a kind of creation myth that mirrors, as it presumes to explain, America’s unruly energies—as Sam and Hailey experience Hailey’s brief dalliance with a macho avatar of military, militant power (“The Creep”), an Ongoing Party in New Orleans, a farcical hospital stay following an apparent overdose and an escape to the heartland and a climactic encounter with “the peril pursuing US.” They’re Bonnie and Clyde, Tristan and Isolde, an X-rated Archie and Veronica and perhaps All in the Family’s embattled liberal couple Mike and Gloria.

You have to work at it, but it’s a trip well worth taking.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-42176-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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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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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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