There’s a literary renaissance underway just north of us, and Crummey’s quite literally astonishing debut novel is one of...

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RIVER THIEVES

A little-known historical atrocity—the extinction of the Beothuk (“Red”) Indians of central Newfoundland—becomes an authentic tragedy in this brilliantly constructed, immensely moving debut novel by an award-winning Canadian poet and short-story writer.

The narrative, which covers roughly the years 1811–20, is assembled from both the viewpoints and extended reminiscences of four characters: Indian-hating fisherman John Peyton and his less truculent son and namesake; their strong-minded, self-educated housekeeper Cassie Jure (who is also John Junior’s tutor); and David Buchan, the thoughtful British naval officer who is assigned to map the coastland, then Crown property, and also to investigate rumors “that attacks of inhuman barbarity were being perpetrated against the Indians by settlers.” The fate of the Beothuks is all the more powerfully communicated because Crummey’s text barely registers their presence (they’re virtual shadows passing into oblivion), concentrating the effects of the settlers’ treatment of them in the figure of “Mary,” a Beothuk woman abducted during a violent raid thereafter shrouded in defensive secrecy. Lieutenant Buchan’s painstaking reconstruction of a concealed history of theft (both Indians and settlers are, in their separate ways, “river thieves”) and murder is expertly juxtaposed with the several interconnected stories of the aforementioned major characters, each of whom exhibits thoroughly convincing heroic potential and unconquerable crucially damaging human failings. Furthermore, Crummey shifts the focus so skillfully that the reader’s attention and sympathies are seized by, and buffeted among, Cassie’s ferocious hunger for the full life so long denied her; David Buchan’s conflicted vacillations between duty and desire, sharpened by righteous anger; the elder John Peyton’s ego-driven need to hold onto all he has left; and the sense of opportunities lost so stunningly encapsulated in young John Peyton’s anguished final words: “All my life I’ve loved what didn’t belong to me.”

There’s a literary renaissance underway just north of us, and Crummey’s quite literally astonishing debut novel is one of the brightest jewels in its crown.

Pub Date: June 19, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-14531-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2002

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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 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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