Told in beautifully evocative prose, a panoramic novel showing that the price of growing beyond one’s origins might be...

PRINCE OF MONKEYS

Nigerian writer Ehirim's audacious debut novel follows a teenager's quest for self-definition in a country in search of itself.

In a prologue set in 1992, the narrator, Ihechi, and his friends run into the famed Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, who proceeds to get the foursome—which includes Mendaus, a pretentious bookworm; his stepsister, Zeenat, who doubles as Ihechi’s love interest; and a young Christian known only as Pastor’s son—drunk to the point of threatening a police officer. Ehirim then moves back to 1985 as he retraces the steps leading up to that fateful event, which encapsulates the generational and class intersections propelling the novel. Most of the adults here are fixed in their worldviews. Their children, too young to understand the circumstances that have led their parents to be so rigid, socialize with one another though they come from different backgrounds and differentiate themselves through pop culture. Zeenat communicates through movies, Pastor’s son through Scripture, and Mendaus through books. Ihechi, however, is constantly seeking meaning and remains distant due to his banker father’s business relationship with the government and his mother’s religious fanaticism. These poles gesture toward what Ihechi sees as the underpinnings of Nigerian society: corruption and traditionalism. Fela, a musician who encouraged traditional African lifestyles and religions while being arrested hundreds of times for criticizing the Nigerian government, develops into the perfect centerpiece to represent both the cross-cultural appeal of music and Ihechi’s emotional confusion as a child. The next time the foursome sees Fela, a military crackdown leaves Zeenat dead; Mendaus radicalized; and Ihechi’s mother fearful for her son’s impressionable spirit. She sends him away to live with his uncle and cousins, Pentecostals who look down on him—though it turns out that Ihechi’s cousin Tessy is sneaking out at night to work in a brothel. Through her connections, Ihechi winds up working for a major general in Nigeria’s army, setting the stage for a confrontation with his childhood friends that forces him to reckon with what both he and his country have become.

Told in beautifully evocative prose, a panoramic novel showing that the price of growing beyond one’s origins might be steeper than anticipated.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64009-167-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Jan. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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