A modern-day epic seesaws uncomfortably between absurdity and banality.

AN EGYPTIAN NOVEL

A family saga ranges from contemporary Israel to Egypt to Inquisition-era Spain.

Vivienne leaves her job at the bank early to make it to her wedding on time. “I don’t understand,” says her supervisor, “why didn’t you take the day off?” “No need,” she says. Her husband, Charlie, is one of five Egypt-born brothers. Vita, one of those brothers, “was already married to Adele, who didn’t like the yellow part of the hard-boiled egg, and told everyone in the Egyptian garin—their cohort on the kibbutz—that she’s half-Ashkenazi.” Vivienne doesn’t understand the connection between those two details; all she knows is that, “in the dining hall Adele would always mention these facts together.” Castel-Bloom’s (Dolly City, 2010, etc.) latest novel is full of details like these: banal yet charming, mundane to the point of absurdity. Vivienne and Charlie will have two daughters, referred to only as the Older Daughter and Younger Daughter, while Adele and Vita will have one, the Only Daughter. These daughters eventually have daughters of their own. Castel-Bloom traces their lineage—based on her own—in chapters that switch back and forth in time, ranging as far back as 1492, when one small segment of the Kastil family converts to Christianity in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. Castel-Bloom has a wonderful sense of the absurd; her saga is reminiscent of both Kafka and García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But her novel ultimately fails to satisfy. In many ways, the work reads more like a collection of linked stories than like a unified novel: characters and situations might be introduced in one chapter only to be dropped in the next. It might be that the balance has been tipped too far toward the banal, with chapters like “The Counter Girl Gets Leverage”—in which Vivienne’s Older Daughter, now middle-aged, becomes interested in the fate of a young convenience store worker—simply going on too long. On the other hand, you’ll want to hear more about that Inquisition.

A modern-day epic seesaws uncomfortably between absurdity and banality.

Pub Date: July 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-94315-022-9

Page Count: 155

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2017

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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