If Oprah takes British writers, this is a shoo-in.

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ROUGH MUSIC

In his richly rewarding ninth novel, British author Gale (Tree Surgery for Beginners, 1994, etc.) leaves behind the comedy on which he’s built a reputation to explore how secrets, betrayals, and missed connections come close to tearing a family apart.

From the powerful opening image of a woman feeling the ocean suck the sand from beneath her feet, Gale intertwines two plots concerning the same family and taking place in the same beach cottage 30-odd years apart. In the 1960s, eight-year-old Julian Pagett and his gently inhibited parents go to Cornwall for a vacation that begins with great promise but spirals out of control with the arrival from America of the boy’s uncle and cousin. In the contemporary story, Julian has evolved into Will, a 40-year-old bookstore owner having an affair with his sister’s husband. For his birthday, Will’s unsuspecting sister gives him a vacation in Cornwall. Will brings along his parents, stoic John and gutsy Frances, who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Frances is a remarkable creation full of emotional nooks and crannies, whether as a young, rather proper British matron discovering her sexuality, or as a grandmother who sees the world she inhabits with cruel clarity despite her failing memory. John too is drawn with nuanced delicacy, particularly his inability to express the intense love he feels for Frances with the abandon they both crave. Will’s story is less compelling, his romance with a mysterious stranger predictable and too neatly settled. But, overall, Gale uses detail—a lunch of fish and chips on a pier, a moment of intimacy seen by mistake through a half-open door—to build a palpable sense of regret and emotional urgency. His treatment of issues like Alzheimer’s and gay love rises above the trendy and politically correct; his characters are so imperfect they are impossible not to love.

If Oprah takes British writers, this is a shoo-in.

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-345-44236-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2001

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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