A startling look at race relations in the American South.

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LUCIUS

A very old, white Southern man recounts a fantastical story about his life with a slave companion in this debut novel.

Fifty-year-old Mordecai “Tree” Weissman lives in Atlanta, not far from a river where Confederate and Union soldiers battled during the Civil War. While volunteering at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, he meets an eccentric Southern gentleman, Benno Johnson, who grew up in Atlanta. Benno, a charming raconteur, regales Mordecai with stories of his youth—which include tales of his slave, Lucius Cincinnatus Jones. Mordecai is understandably incredulous, as it’s currently 2017. He asks the home’s resident psychiatrist, Dr. McBurney, about it, and he can’t conclusively rule out the possibility that Benno’s stories are true. Author Lieberman devotes the bulk of his extraordinarily imaginative debut novel to Benno’s anecdotal account of his life with Lucius (and the strange manner of Lucius’ death). It soon comes to light that Benno is only about 90 years old and spent nearly his entire life with Lucius, who died about three years before. When Benno’s account gets into the details of Lucius’ death, it becomes even more peculiar, but also more engrossing. He says that Lucius once fled an angry Ku Klux Klan rally into a swamp, where he was able to communicate with animals and had a particularly lively exchange with two frogs. Mordecai soon notices that Benno only ever talks of Lucius in the terms of friendship and love: “He’d say things, and you would hear them, and you wouldn’t know who you were supposed to be rooting for. You wouldn’t know if he and Lucius were on the same side, the same team, or whether that was a morally perverse thought, practically implausible, and shameful to have even thought.”  In the end, Lieberman leaves it tantalizingly unsettled as to just how much of Benno’s remembrance is real and how much is apocryphal. Although Benno’s autobiography seems like fabulist insanity on its face, he delivers it all with placid self-assurance, and Mordecai is a perfectly drawn straight man for the old man’s wild tales. The younger man predictably disbelieves them, but he also gets pulled deeply into the narrative, hungry to hear more. Throughout, Lieberman’s prose is confidently informal and anecdotally intimate in a way that courts the reader’s trust. The way that he presents Benno’s story, readers will likely share Mordecai’s discomfort with it, as the old man’s telling seems tainted by the stain of racism. Some may also be uncomfortable with the fact that this anti-slavery novel attempts to offer a morally nuanced account, thinking that it whitewashes the gruesomeness of bondage. However, the book is a deeply original meditation on race and friendship. It’s impossible to gainsay Benno’s devotion to Lucius, and their loving camaraderie does raise provocative questions about the nature of devotion. This inaugural effort is rather brief—short enough to be considered a novella—which makes its artistic and philosophic depth all the more impressive.

A startling look at race relations in the American South.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-984186-52-2

Page Count: 211

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 15, 2018

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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