It’s the rightness of Murphy’s language that thrills us into temporary submission, but as the novel progresses, its odd...


An Irish river floods; nine people drown, presumed suicides. Folklore and radio transmissions provide part of the answer in this work of magic realism, the Irish journalist’s second novel (John the Revelator, 2009).

On the first of November 1984, the torrential rains begin, causing the river Rua to overflow its banks in the town of Murn. Nine bodies will be retrieved, six of them young adults. The flood begins the novel and is reprised toward the end, so Murphy has begun with the climax—a daring move. The rest of the novel sketches the protagonist, Enoch O’Reilly, and offers haphazard vignettes of the dead. (In the inevitable comparison, Jeffrey Eugenides’ tightly focused The Virgin Suicides fares better.) Enoch grew up in a small town south of Murn. Mother Kathleen was a devout Catholic; father Frank owned an electrical business and was a published authority on sound waves. This tight-lipped man had built his own machine. The pivotal moment of Enoch’s life came when the 12-year-old snuck into his dad’s workshop and heard a thundering preacher’s voice through the headphones. That same night, his idol, Elvis, the King, exhorted him to emulate the preacher, which he did after a fashion, espousing the Word (but not God) and years later hosting a parodic Revival Hour on local radio. The trouble with this Elvis freak is that he has no interior. He is less complex than Frank, who gathered data on historical flood patterns through his machine and concluded the river was a force to cull the population. Certainly the Rua Nine were mentally troubled or miscreants. One was an arsonist; another, a farmer, shot all his cattle. As a battlefield casualty in Korea, Frank had a vision: “chains of men descending into a river.” And after Enoch’s incursion, he suffered a breakdown, babbling in “riverish.”

It’s the rightness of Murphy’s language that thrills us into temporary submission, but as the novel progresses, its odd structure becomes increasingly problematic.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-90477-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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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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