Bold, slashing view of the tiresome banality of evil.

CHARLIE JOHNSON IN THE FLAMES

A journalist decides to avenge one of the many atrocities he’s witnessed, in a third novel (Scar Tissue, 1994, etc.) by political commentator-historian Ignatieff (Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, 2001, etc.).

There are few more clichéd characters than the seasoned war journalist—but few more compelling. Witness Charlie Johnson, the rough soul here. Charlie, who’s covered wars since Vietnam, has been based out of London of late, where he has a family that he never sees because he’s globetrotting to flashpoints with his rock-solid Polish cameraman Jacek. But Charlie gets set off when he and Jacek are trying to cover a story in Kosovo, circa 1998, and a Serb patrol comes through the village, setting fires. As Charlie and Jacek hide in a dugout, the woman who sheltered them is doused in gasoline and set on fire by the soldiers: “As she ran, her arms were like wings of flame, and she blundered into you in an embrace of fire.” Horribly burned himself, Charlie recuperates first under US Navy care, then at Jacek’s remote farmhouse—his wife’s phone calls going unanswered. Deeply scarred once too often by the memories of war, Charlie begins to harbor fantasies of revenge on the officer responsible for the woman’s death. When Charlie goes back to London, he acts out like a petulant teenager, playing the seasoned pro who has to explain nothing to anybody because he’s looked evil in the face and been marked forever. Ignatieff’s prose, which can tend toward the stiff, is best when describing Charlie in this self-righteous but resolutely unwise state of mind, formed by decades of violence: “It seemed obvious to him now that he had been left almost completely untouched by his life. Tired of it, perhaps, but untouched, as if it had all been just a very long action movie and no curtain.” Charlie’s return to the Balkans seems less a mission of justice than an acting-out of something he once saw in a movie.

Bold, slashing view of the tiresome banality of evil.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-8021-1755-4

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2003

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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