A lot of patience is necessary to make sense of this winding narrative, but it's an eventful road.

EMPTY STREETS

Ajvaz (Golden Age, 2010, etc.) braids together various histories, stories, motivations, and losses while an unnamed narrator weaves through the streets of Prague.

The story truly begins with a surrealist movement in Prague back in the 1970s, but the narrator is first introduced struggling to write a novella in 1999. While taking a walk to cure his writer’s block, he steps into a web of mystery when his foot is pierced by a strange object he calls a double trident. For the rest of the day, the narrator repeatedly encounters symbols in the same shape, and then he gets a phone call from Jakub Jonás, a former literary critic whose daughter, Viola Jonásová, has been missing for two years. At Jonás’ behest and to satiate his own curiosity, the narrator spends the next eight days searching for Viola. He snakes through the city, “watchful for any opportunity, any encounter with a person unknown, any snatch of conversation overheard in the streetcar, any machine of unknown purpose, any broken-off piece of something at a dump” that might lead him to her. Ajvaz’s previous work on philosophy and his in-depth study of Jorge Luis Borges shine through. Each character bearing a relationship with the double trident has an intricate philosophy on various art forms and their roles within his or her method of whimsy. Often characters speak for entire chapters as the narrator listens, parsing the monologues for clues about the missing girl. In this convoluted novel are mosaics of characters and histories; silence and sound; art and torture. By the end of Part I, it’s hard to discern exactly what is myth and what is reality. However, the work is meticulously crafted. No tension is lost in the tangential rants of fleeting characters. As easy as it is to read through with rapt attention, this novel would definitely benefit from rereadings and re-examinations.

A lot of patience is necessary to make sense of this winding narrative, but it's an eventful road.

Pub Date: March 25, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-56478-700-2

Page Count: 488

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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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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