Despite Mercier’s (Perlmann’s Silence, 2012, etc.) lyricism and occasional emotional acuity, the book's depiction of...

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LEA

Two men from Bern who can no longer trust their hands—one is a recently retired surgeon who can't hold a scalpel without trembling and the other can't hold a steering wheel without contemplating suicide—meet by chance in a cafe in Provence.

Both are also wifeless fathers to grown daughters from whom they are estranged, or worse. Adrian Herzog, the novel’s narrator, soon learns that his new acquaintance, Martijn van Vliet, is reeling from his daughter Lea’s death. The strangers quickly bond as van Vliet tells the story of Lea’s descent due to an unnamed mental illness, beginning with the time the father and then-8-year-old girl encountered an enigmatic masked woman playing the violin in a train station. As they listened, van Vliet grew convinced that this woman’s playing had managed to pierce the armor of grief his young daughter had worn since her mother’s death a year earlier. He concludes that in this moment a "new will had formed" inside her, a will toward life, betraying her intense desire to learn to play the violin. Her knack for the instrument develops into an obsession for the pair and eventually a glamorous career for Lea—that is, until her breakdown. Van Viet tells his story with the fear that what he once considered the only way for his daughter to overcome her grief may well have been what destroyed her. Above all, he's desperate to believe in his own innocence as a father and finds in Herzog an exceedingly eager and compassionate listener. The relationship that develops between the two men is well-wrought and their subtle affinities numerous, but the book lacks a probing analysis of the father-daughter relationship. Van Vliet admits that he imagined his daughter "a fairy by nature," and her characterization is reminiscent of Romantic tropes: a precocious prodigy, a frigid and fragile "countess…unaware of her aura." Needless to say, she doesn’t speak much in her father’s tale, apart from uttering imperious commands in French. The moments later meant to signify her mental break fall flat, even in scenes meant to depict her rage. This lack is exacerbated by moments of sexist and racist outbursts from the protagonist. For instance, van Vliet says of a co-worker: "I destroyed Ruth Adamek, who had never forgiven me for not falling for her miniskirt," and frequently refers to his daughter’s psychologist as "the Maghrebi" who would cast him "black, Arab looks."

Despite Mercier’s (Perlmann’s Silence, 2012, etc.) lyricism and occasional emotional acuity, the book's depiction of suffering does little to elaborate its closing observation that "there is unhappiness of a dimension so great that it is unbearable."

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2166-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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