Finely wrought fiction eschewing the usual clichés about artistic inspiration in favor of deeper, more organic understanding.

THE SEASON OF MIGRATION

Hermann follows up her well-received debut (The Cure for Grief, 2008) with a sensitive novel about a crucial turning point in the life of Vincent van Gogh.

Shortly after being dismissed from his post as a lay preacher in a Belgian mining town, van Gogh stopped writing to his younger brother, Theo, for 10 months, the only gap in their voluminous correspondence. As Hermann imagines it, the passionate, awkward, unfocused van Gogh knows he’s once again disappointed his parents, and a visit from Theo—comfortably ensconced at Goupil’s, the art dealership where Vincent once worked—makes it clear that his brother too is worried about him. “[D]on’t you want improvement in your life?” Theo asks. “[Y]ou’ve changed so much that you’re just not the same any longer.” This loss of faith by the person closest to him unnerves van Gogh, already shaken by his encounter with the grim realities of mining life and his inability to provide the soothing religious reassurances his father doles out as a minister. Hermann combines an account of Vincent’s long walk toward Paris to see Theo in May 1880 with letters describing his transformative stay in Belgium, which he plans to deliver by hand so his brother can understand what has happened to him. Hermann quietly shows van Gogh drawing compulsively as he trudges miserably through the countryside, poor, sick and starving but always looking with wonder at the world around him. Nightmarish memories of the oppressed miners whose plight he couldn’t ameliorate slowly open up into the realization that “This is life; this is my life. I am witness.” We know, although Vincent does not, that he is on the road to achieving the apotheosis he spoke of in happier times with Theo: “the way an artist could succeed at portraying a feeling in an image…translate not just the beauty of it but the exact joy that we felt.”

Finely wrought fiction eschewing the usual clichés about artistic inspiration in favor of deeper, more organic understanding.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-25547-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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