A brave but heavy-handed work about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

THE FIRST WIFE

A man’s five wives band together, against all odds, to demand what’s rightfully theirs.

Rami has been married to her husband, Tony, for 20 years. They live in southern Mozambique, and they have five children. Tony’s been a good husband to Rami: as chief of police, he’s a successful, professional man, and he’s provided well for his family. But lately he’s been absent—conspicuously so—and Rami sets out to discover his whereabouts. She finds that she isn’t the only woman in his life. Tony, it turns out, has been stringing along not just one or two, but four other women, each of them with a trail of children. Rami is bewildered, devastated, and furious in turn. She confronts the other women, but they won’t be scared off: like Rami, they depend on Tony for their livelihoods. Rami tries a few different strategies. To learn to hold on to her husband, she takes lessons in love; she also visits a dealer in fortunes and then the wife of a seer. Then Rami shifts tactics. Instead of squabbling, she and the other wives agree to band together. They establish a conjugal rota, according to which Tony will spend a week with each wife, in prescribed order. They force Tony to grant each one of them legitimacy, which brings with it various rights, security, and comfort. Rami encourages each of the women to establish her own small business so they won’t be so dependent on Tony. They seem to be flourishing. But nothing in their world is really stable or fair. As Rami thinks: “To have only one love in life? Baloney! Only women, forever stupid, swallow that story. Men love every day. Every time the sun comes up, off they go in search of new passions, new emotions, while we wait forever more for a love that’s gone old and feeble. All men are polygamous.” This novel by Chiziane, the first published Mozambiquan female novelist, is daring, biting in its critique. It describes the plight of women caught between Mozambique’s traditional culture and its colonized societies. In that sense, it’s an effective work. But it begins to bow beneath the weight of its own responsibility. Chiziane aims for an emotional pitch that can’t be sustained for the entire length of the novel. Her metaphors are heavy, relentless, following one upon the other. She might have done with a lighter touch.

A brave but heavy-handed work about the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

Pub Date: July 26, 2016

ISBN: 9780914671480

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Archipelago

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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