A most unusual debut collection, and a very good one indeed.

SMALL CRIMES IN AN AGE OF ABUNDANCE

Envy, snobbery and xenophobia coexist with such literal crimes as child abuse and drug-peddling.

In each of the 12 tales here, a settled life is either gradually or abruptly disturbed. When the Winter family depart (in “Stone”) from its guided tour of China and Hong Kong to “travel independently,” they find themselves abetting the very human-rights violations they righteously deplore. In “Powder,” London solicitor Peter Pelham accidentally takes possession of a stash of cocaine, wonders how it might improve his dull, respectable life—and finds paradoxical fulfillment in risking his family’s security. British author Kneale (Mr. Foreigner, 2003, etc.) roams widely abroad in brisk, incisive portrayals of an overweight, twice-divorced geologist traveling China’s Silk Road and encountering an Asian Muslim beauty who seems to love him for himself (“Weight”); an unproductive writer whose submissive affair with a wealthy older woman is redefined when they purchase a rundown Italian villa (“Sunlight”); and a young Palestinian suicide bomber’s sorrowful resignation to the fate his culture requires of him (“White”). A few stories misfire: an anecdotal account of a Colombian family’s revenge against a heartless coca dealer (“Leaves”), for instance, and a tale of a pampered noblewoman given a lesson in living by the maid she suspects of stealing from her (“Taste”). Both lack the sense of narrative completeness Kneale builds into such successes as the story of an Englishman caught up in a protest demonstration in North Africa, whence he has come to pursue an agenda chillingly foreshadowed in the best of all these pieces’ single-word titles: “Metal.” Even better are brilliantly wrought accounts of a young music journalist’s confrontation with his unknown “stalker” (“Sound”) and the undoing (in “Numbers”) of a computer analyst’s ordered domestic life by the specter of a death in his extended family.

A most unusual debut collection, and a very good one indeed.

Pub Date: March 15, 2005

ISBN: 0-385-51407-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2005

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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