A well-written, richly complicated, and deeply engaging coming-of-age tale.

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THE MADNESS OF GRIEF

In this literary novel set in England, a teenager learns startling revelations about people close to her.

In the sultry London of July 1969, Jane Hareman is 16 years old, making her first steps into maturity as humanity is taking its first steps on the moon. She has a comfortable relationship with her best friend, Karl Schmidt-Smith, a talented pianist and composer a year older than Jane. But then he says the words that turn her “whole world upside down: ‘Let’s go upstairs to my room.’ ” Jane, an intelligent girl who enjoys reading Kafka and philosophy, isn’t sure how she feels about that. She also has other things on her mind, such as the nearly 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Jane’s household consists of her father, George, once a magician known as “Mr. Magikoo,” and his girlfriend, Mia-Mia. A frequent visitor is George’s sister, Ada, a second mother to Jane. After the accidental onstage electrocution of his wife, for which neither Jane nor Ada has ever forgiven him, George eventually retired from performing to run his magic shop—but not before roping young Jane into appearing as “Little Magik Matchstick” in a terrifying theatrical illusion. Ada put a stop to this when Jane was 8, but the teen adds the experience to the list of things she can’t forgive. Returning home after watching the moonwalk on TV with Karl and his mother (who thinks it’s a hoax), Jane finds her world upended again when Mia-Mia reveals several important truths about herself, George, and Ada. Enlightened, Jane can now forgive her father, telling him: “I understand now that everything, even Little Magik Matchstick, was part of the madness of grief.” But Jane’s rapprochement and her understanding of the truth are soon upended yet again through betrayal and tragedy. Helped somewhat by the humanity of a few people in her world, Jane must find strength in turmoil.   As in his previous novels, Cacoyannis (Polk, Harper & Who, 2017, etc.) again shows his perceptive understanding of the many layered elements that make up the psyche. Jane’s view of Karl, for example, undergoes seismic shifts after he attempts rape. Is he unforgivable? Is it his mother’s fault? Does his sublime piano composition in her honor excuse what he tried to do? As Jane yields “to what I felt like doing today, already one absolute certainty had sweepingly overridden another.” The uses, attractions, and dangers of lies, fictions, magic, and illusion run through the story in thought-provoking ways (“One of Mr. Magikoo’s best-known tricks involved pulling a rabbit out of two different hats…by sleight of hand the mutilation of the rabbit was concealed”). Telling the truth can have dire consequences; sometimes lying is necessary to protect the innocent; magic’s enthrallment depends on the audience’s feelings of horror. Cacoyannis’ characters, even minor ones, are equally complex and multifaceted, with histories that he brings out skillfully. Jane in particular is an appealing young person with her honesty, cleverness, openness, and desire to do the right thing. Flashes of absurdist dark humor provide a welcome note in the book’s dramatic events.

A well-written, richly complicated, and deeply engaging coming-of-age tale.

Pub Date: April 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-980366-18-8

Page Count: 243

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: March 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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