A too faithful retelling that, despite some vivid moments, ultimately has little life of its own.

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COUNTRY

The Iliad in the Irish borderlands during the final months of the Troubles.

Northern Ireland, 1996. Despite the cease-fire, Shane Campbell (alias Pig), the Officer Commanding of a Provisional IRA unit, is planning a strike on a nearby British Army garrison. Why? Because Pig’s sister-in-law Nellie, the wife of his brother Brian (alias Dog), has tarnished the Campbell name by turning “tout” (Loyalist/British agent) and then running away to England with her handler. Sound familiar? Just you wait. The action opens with a disagreement between Pig and Liam O’Brien (unsubtle alias: Achill). After Pig is forced to return “his girl” to her father, a local Protestant landowner, he decides that he must have Achill’s girl as a replacement. Achill—the famed Border Sniper, hugely feared by the IRA’s enemies—rebels against Pig’s tyranny by putting down his arms, an act which emboldens the British (the best of whom is SAS Capt. Henry Morrow) to set an ambush for Pig’s team. The rest is…well…The Iliad. And that’s the problem. Writing in a fast-paced Irish lilt, debut bard Hughes is at his best (which, mind you, can be good) when he’s least faithful to his Homeric blueprint. His reimagining of Helen (here Nellie) is especially striking, showing how a young woman’s search for freedom ends up entangling her (because abortions are illegal) in the very place and conflict from which she seeks escape. But Nellie’s section is, alas, an exception. Hughes is faithful to Homer’s story at the expense of his own. His characters are not themselves but proxies for the Homeric originals; they don the armor and read the lines but are lacking in on-the-page emotional complexity. Similarly, dozens of scenes are included to simply check off their corresponding plot box in The Iliad—and therefore deliver very little affect of their own. The result? The novel, despite its promising start, quickly devolves into a litany of allusions. Look! The Republican pub is called the Ships! Look! The British fort is called Castle William but some kids monkeyed with the sign and now it reads “Castle Illiam!” Look! Pat (nee Patroclus) is literally wearing Achill’s body armor! Look! Achill, the famed long-distance sniper, has literally chased Henry three times around Illiam’s walls on foot!

A too faithful retelling that, despite some vivid moments, ultimately has little life of its own.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-294032-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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