An impressionistic flash-fiction trek through the wreckage of war.


Stories about life in Mozambique after its civil war, reckoning with the damage via fable and folklore.

This collection by Couto (Woman of the Ashes, 2018, etc.) was first published in Portuguese in 1994, two years after the end of a 15-year war that killed or displaced 6 million people. So the mood is understandably somber, but Couto is not interested in dwelling on carnage; in his introduction, he writes that he wishes to explore instead “the space where violence could not strike, where barbarism could not enter.” That means the stories are more intimate tales of loss or of odd, Borges-ian incidents: A man is concerned that his pregnant wife’s long labor signals she’s cheated; the rain in the title story represents the end of the war years when “the gods reproached us with this drought”; a coconut reportedly spills blood instead of milk; a man turns his heavy drinking into an act of postwar religious meditation. All of the 26 stories are brief, usually running no more than five or six pages. And the plots are brush strokes, usually turning on themes of infidelity and the ways society has been upended after the war, be it through coping mechanisms (drinking and sex, usually) or more peculiar scenarios, as in “Beyond the River Bend,” in which a hippopotamus breaks into a vocational school and contents itself “chewing through a sewing machine.” Stylistically, Couto’s writing is poker-faced, neither rejecting nor outright embracing the more surrealistic events he describes, though he does enjoy wordplay: Translator Becker ably preserves Couto's affinity for neologisms with puns like “timidiminutive,” “mistified nights,” “intirrigated,” “airsfixiated.” Not every coinage works, nor does every story, but the prevailing effect is, to quote one of his portmanteaus, “splendolorous”: conveying a sense of profound loss flecked with a measure of optimism about life after the bloodshed is over.

An impressionistic flash-fiction trek through the wreckage of war.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-77196-266-7

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.


An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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