Lush and lurid, as are its sultry settings: an intricate brocade conceals its blemishes, seducing the reader with silken...

WHO SLASHED CELANIRE’S THROAT?

Human sacrifice, never a good thing, wreaks spectacular havoc in the author’s latest Caribbean gothic.

In the 1880s, an infant is found on Guadeloupe with its throat slit, not an isolated phenomenon on this isle where the demons cultivated for personal and political gain prefer babies as sacrificial victims. Kindly but debauched Dr. Jean Pinceau (aping his hero, Dr. Frankenstein) reattaches Celanire’s head and adopts her. After goading her adoptive mother fatally into the jaws of a mysterious black dog, Celanire attempts to seduce Pinceau, who is wrongfully convicted of child rape and exiled to the penal colony of French Guiana. And that’s just her first ten years. Entrusted to nuns, Celanire is educated in France and travels as a missionary to colonial Ivory Coast. A beauty whose swan neck is never without scarf, necklace, or ribbon, Celanire captivates both sexes as she sets about revamping a home for illegitimate children, turning it into an elite academy by day, salon/bordello by night. Anyone who resists her charisma, like the hapless homosexual Hakim, is doomed, as is anyone she finds inconvenient. On the surface, Celanire is an envoy of civilization who cultivates elaborate gardens and rails against female circumcision and oppression of women. Wrested back from sacrifice, she’s the double-agent of the unpropitiated demon-gods. Her acts serve twin mandates: to avenge herself on everyone connected to the sacrifice, and to discover her true parentage. The action spans four tropical climes: Africa, Guiana, Guadeloupe (where the former foundling returns in grim triumph as the governor’s wife), and Peru, where an exorcism of sorts occurs. The body count mounts as do Celanire’s shape-shifting forms—large mastiffs, a stallion, a raptor bird, and—a waitress? Condé (Tales From the Heart, 2001,etc) sets herself a fearsome challenge: an implacable trickster can hardly engage our sympathy, despite her cultivated veneer.

Lush and lurid, as are its sultry settings: an intricate brocade conceals its blemishes, seducing the reader with silken irony.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2004

ISBN: 0-7434-8260-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2004

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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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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