Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable.


Imagine a Dickens novel freed of the restraints imposed by Victorian propriety. There’s no other way to describe this enthralling melodrama from the British author of Under the Skin (2000).

Set in 1870s London, Faber’s second outing is a brilliantly plotted chronicle of the collision between high and low, as played out in the complex relationship binding would-be writer William Rackham, heir to a perfume-maker’s fortune and an inveterate whoremaster, and a cunning prostitute known as Sugar, whose special erotic talents inflame the smitten Rackham to the extent that he installs her in his home, ostensibly as his young daughter’s governess; in fact, as the mistress who distracts his attention from the illnesses and “fits” endured by his frail (and possibly “mad”) wife Agnes. Faber tells this story through the voice of a cajoling omniscient narrator implicitly likened to a whore luring her customer on, incidentally providing a thickly detailed panorama of 19th-century urban life. And the characters: not only the egoistic, self-justifying Rackham, the fascinating Agnes (a keen study in what used to be called “female hysteria”), and the calculating Sugar (herself a secret authoress, of “a tale that throws back the sheets from acts never shown and voices never heard”)—but also William’s priggish brother Henry, who wishes to reform prostitutes but suffers “nightmares of erotic disgrace”; Henry’s cohort in benevolence, “Rescue Society” bluestocking Emmeline Fox; the Hogarthian procuress Mrs. Castaway and the ghastly Colonel Leek; “eminent swells” Bodley and Ashwell, William’s companions in depravity and the exploitation of women—these and many others leap from Faber’s crowded pages, as the whore Sugar’s progress clashes with the sanctity of the Rackham hearth, Agnes’s runaway manic-depression, William’s inexplicable recovery of love for his wife and eventual dismissal of her replacement—and leads to Sugar’s horrific climactic revenge. It’s hard to imagine that any contemporary novelist could have appropriated with such skill and force the irresistible narrative drive of the Victorian three-decker, or that readers who hunger for story won’t devour this like grateful wolves.

Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-15-100692-X

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2002

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...


Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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