An intriguing idea for magical realism in Harlem delivers too little of either.

CAUL BABY

A first novel with fertility on its mind.

The book opens in 1998 with a dire prediction for the luckless and pregnant Laila, a brownstone-dwelling member of the Harlem bourgeoisie. Her dismal history near ordains it: “Some of the fetuses grew, saw the dents of their past siblings in her womb, and joined them in the ether.” Laila will end up having a book-length conversation with these spirits after she bloodily and publicly loses this pregnancy, then her mind. Her architect husband skulks away. Laila blames the Melancons, a notorious family of women up from Louisiana way. They refused to sell her a piece of caul, the amniotic membrane that encloses a gestating fetus. (Folk medicine links the caul to healing and protection.) The Melancons know how to fuse these membranes to their newborns’ bodies and cut away chunks as the child grows, always for a hefty price—mostly for White people. As the family line sputters, the Melancons luck into the clandestine adoption of a serene infant with a perfect, intact caul. The child's teenage mother, Amara, names her Hallow and hands her off to an intermediary, eyes instead on her path through Columbia and Yale. The twist arrives two decades later as Amara, now a Manhattan assistant district attorney, seeks to prosecute the reviled and grasping Melancons only to meet her doppelgänger, a grown Hallow. Cultural critic and essayist Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing (2018), is drawn to questions of gender, family, identity, race, and belonging. The trouble lies in her leap to fiction. This novel sinks under the weight of clunky melodrama, a river of tears, an awkward bloom of adverbs, and a plot so far-fetched that interior logic collapses. Readers keen for the indelible links among Black generations would do better with Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's The Revisioners (2019) or any of Toni Morrison's novels.

An intriguing idea for magical realism in Harlem delivers too little of either.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-287308-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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