The rhetoric is gorgeous, but the pace is too often funereal. Not, therefore, one of West’s real triumphs—but a failure that...



West’s 19th novel (after OK and Dry Danube, both 2000) painstakingly fictionalizes the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Catholic conspirators led by Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament, and in the process murder England’s anti-Catholic King James I and his chief ministers.

West focuses initially (and, throughout, primarily) on Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest hidden in the home of Catholic noblewoman Anne Vaux, in one of the elaborate recesses (“priestholes”) designed and constructed by Little John Owen, a master of “deceptive carpentry” whose willingness to undertake such work presumably relates to his own dwarfish near-invisibility (he’s “a miniature freak . . . a gnome of the shadows”). The story stalls for much of its first hundred pages, as West roves through the cloistered thought processes of: Father Garnet (also troubled by unwelcome sexual imaginings), Lady Vaux, and Owen—as well as composer William Byrd, an acquaintance of Father Garnet’s, whose music gains him entry to Catholic and Anglican circles alike. Things pick up when events overtake ruminations, ending in the capture of several conspirators, while West broadens his focus to include “Guido” Fawkes himself (who, under torture, names names and implicates others), royalist aristocrat (and, in effect, Lord High Executioner) Sir Robert Cecil, and Machiavellian King’s Attorney Sir Edward Coke. And the tale rises to real eloquence in its rich closing pages, where Father Garnet agonizes over the relative claims of violence and inaction, and prepares himself to die. West’s love of the high style is well-suited to “the seething rot of Elizabethan and Jacobean society”; one wishes only that his (rather arch) omniscient narrator had reined in his tendencies toward elegant variation and superfluous commentary.

The rhetoric is gorgeous, but the pace is too often funereal. Not, therefore, one of West’s real triumphs—but a failure that many novelists might well envy.

Pub Date: May 30, 2001

ISBN: 0-8112-1467-2

Page Count: 340

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.


Thriller writer Baldacci (A Minute to Midnight, 2019, etc.) launches a new detective series starring World War II combat vet Aloysius Archer.

In 1949, Archer is paroled from Carderock Prison (he was innocent) and must report regularly to his parole officer, Ernestine Crabtree (she’s “damn fine-looking”). Parole terms forbid his visiting bars or loose women, which could become a problem. Trouble starts when businessman Hank Pittleman offers Archer $100 to recover a ’47 Cadillac that’s collateral for a debt owed by Lucas Tuttle, who readily agrees he owes the money. But Tuttle wants his daughter Jackie back—she’s Pittleman’s girlfriend, and she won’t return to Daddy. Archer finds the car, but it’s been torched. With no collateral to collect, he may have to return his hundred bucks. Meanwhile, Crabtree gets Archer the only job available, butchering hogs at the slaughterhouse. He’d killed plenty of men in combat, and now he needs peace. The Pittleman job doesn’t provide that peace, but at least it doesn’t involve bashing hogs’ brains in. People wind up dead and Archer becomes a suspect. So he noses around and shows that he might have the chops to be a good private investigator, a shamus. This is an era when gals have gams, guys say dang and keep extra Lucky Strikes in their hatbands, and a Lady Liberty half-dollar buys a good meal. The dialogue has a '40s noir feel: “And don’t trust nobody.…I don’t care how damn pretty they are.” There’s adult entertainment at the Cat’s Meow, cheap grub at the Checkered Past, and just enough clichés to prove that no one’s highfalutin. Readers will like Archer. He’s a talented man who enjoys detective stories, won’t keep ill-gotten gains, and respects women. All signs suggest a sequel where he hangs out a shamus shingle.

Archer will be a great series character for fans of crime fiction. Let’s hope the cigarettes don’t kill him.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-5056-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2019

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