Duncker gets the high melodrama and pedagogy of a Victorian novel right but does not achieve the contemporary distance that...

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SOPHIE AND THE SIBYL

A VICTORIAN ROMANCE

Scandalous novelist George Eliot throws 1870s Berlin society into a tizzy in Duncker’s (The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge, 2010, etc.) Victorian roman à clef. 

Feckless Max Duncker (not a coincidental surname) is assigned by his older brother and publishing partner to get the pseudonymous Middlemarch author (referred to by the authorial Duncker only as “Mrs. Lewes” or “the Sybil”) to sign their contract. Simultaneously, the elder Duncker is arranging a marriage between rakish Max and the young countess Sophie von Hahn, who is rich, spirited, and a die-hard Eliot fangirl. During negotiations, the Sybil accidentally seduces Max through her relentless pedantry about the Roman writer Lucian. Between visits to her parlor, he slouches through the pleasure city of Homburg, Berlin salons, and the German forests in set pieces that put the author’s deep knowledge of 19th-century society to good use. Sophie resents the restrictions of her class and gender, but when her beloved, bejowled author meddles in her engagement, she becomes enraged by the Sibyl’s influence on Max. This love triangle relies on the reader being convinced of two things: Max and Sophie’s love for each other and men's magnetic attraction to the Sibyl. Unfortunately, Duncker tends to declare emotional truths without shoring them up, such as the very pinnacle of Max and the Sibyl’s intimacy: “Something intangible in her company lifted him up from the swamps of his own selfishness. He vowed he would never visit a prostitute or gamble at the tables again.” Additionally, if the reader does not share Duncker’s fascination with the moralizing writer, the narrator’s frequent interruptions of the period piece with commentary and scholarly analysis become tedious.

Duncker gets the high melodrama and pedagogy of a Victorian novel right but does not achieve the contemporary distance that has made other neo-Victorian tales so delectable.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-63286-064-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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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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