Plodding prose, leaden dialogue and a gratuitous trick ending undermine what is otherwise a fraught and entertaining story...

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THE WEDDING GIFT

A debut novel about slaves and masters, mistresses and wives, set in antebellum Alabama.

Bodden’s debut features two narrators: Sarah Campbell, a young mulatto slave, and Theodora, wife of Cornelius Allen, owner of Allen Estates, a large cotton plantation worked by hundreds of slaves. Sarah is Allen’s daughter by his longtime slave mistress, Emmeline. Theodora, a gentlewoman, is at first in love with her new husband, but after the birth of their children (the youngest, Clarissa, is born shortly after Sarah), a combination of his alcoholism, increasingly violent behavior and infidelity quickly sours their marriage, and she takes refuge in the arts and her secret correspondence with a handsome poet. When Allen marries Clarissa off to Cromwell, a brutal plantation owner who can advance Allen's business interests (as a sub rosa investor in the now-illegal slave ships), the stage is set for melodrama. Clarissa has become pregnant by a rival suitor, and after a hurried wedding, Cromwell agrees, in return for financial concessions, to acknowledge the child as his. He changes his mind when he realizes, at Clarissa’s “premature” birthing of a full-term son, that he cannot possibly be the father, and he sends Clarissa back home in disgrace. Meanwhile, Sarah, whom Cromwell seeks to coerce into concubinage as Allen did her mother, plots her escape. Thanks to Theodora’s tutoring, she learned to read and write and is an excellent forger of slave passes. Upon Clarissa's return to Allen Estates, her enraged father takes away her child, and she dies of childbed fever shortly thereafter, whereupon Allen, knowing his good name is tarnished all over the South, drinks himself to death. As Theodora seeks her missing grandson, Cromwell threatens to sue and ruin the entire family. Sarah, in men’s disguise, is making her way inexorably toward the port of Mobile, dodging slave catchers at every turn.

Plodding prose, leaden dialogue and a gratuitous trick ending undermine what is otherwise a fraught and entertaining story enhanced with convincing period detail.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-02638-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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