Authentic, ambitious, richly layered, and very readable.

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DISORIENTAL

French-Iranian screenwriter Djavadi blends the fates of individuals and families with the history of modern Iran in this award-winning debut novel about exile, integration, and the human cost of political opposition.

Narrated by Kimiâ Sadr, youngest daughter in a family of intellectuals and political dissidents, the narrative jumps from a contemporary fertility clinic in Paris to her childhood in Iran. "I'm the granddaughter of a woman born in a harem," she explains, recounting the dramatic birth, during a windstorm, of blue-eyed Nour, who later bears six sons in an arranged marriage, reads Dostoevsky, eventually leaves her husband, and dies the day Kimiâ is born. History, both familial and national, swirls across every page. Djavadi works hard to keep the reader oriented within the welter of stories and characters: "Just be patient a little bit longer, dear Reader." "Since we can, let's jump on a literary magic carpet and zip through time and space." Well-placed footnotes help, the tone often gently mocking. Though there's plenty of tragedy here, there's humor as well. "Life is such that, even in the darkest depths of the drama, there is always still a little room left for the absurd." One of the narrator's recurring frustrations, which Djavadi conveys bitingly well, is Western ignorance about Iran. Woven into the gripping depictions of political unrest, family crises, national upheaval, and personal secrets is an excellent primer on the history of modern Iran. Djavadi knows her material cold and every scene rings true, from the bombing of the family's Tehran apartment by the secret police, to an escape across the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback to their reception at the French Embassy in Istanbul. Most affecting of all is her hard-won understanding of exile: "To really integrate into a culture...you have to disintegrate first." It is through the tales of her family that the narrator survives. Of her forebears Kimiâ says, "After so much time and distance, it's not their world that flows in my veins anymore, or their languages or traditions or beliefs, or even their fears, but their stories."

Authentic, ambitious, richly layered, and very readable.

Pub Date: April 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60945-451-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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