Powerfully evocative, but wispy characterizations leave a void at the center.

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THE SECOND COMING OF MAVALA SHIKONGO

A group of teachers cope with their desolate existence at a remote boarding school in Namibia.

Southwest Africa never had it easy. Colonized by the Germans and then the British, and later annexed by apartheid-era South Africa, the country endured a 20-year guerilla war before being reborn in 1989 as Namibia. And then there’s the cruel climate, with its killer droughts. Orner sets his first novel in Goas, a tiny settlement in the veldt. Once an unproductive farm, it passed to the Catholic church, which sent monks there to raise sheep. The sheep died; the monks disappeared into the empty veldt. Their ghosts, along with many others, haunt the school eventually erected there. In 1991, narrator Larry Kaplanski, a young American Jew from Ohio, joins the four other male teachers as a volunteer. Within weeks, there’s another arrival, Mavala Shikongo, the principal’s sister-in-law: beautiful, stern, tight-lipped Mavala, who was a soldier in the war. She soon disappears, but returns with a small boy, Tomo. Her fellow teachers are bewitched. The five men drink, reminisce and commiserate with each other. Orner’s novel is a montage of conversations, historical episodes and character sketches. Kaplanski’s neighbor in the singles quarters, Pohamba, visits the nearest town for female companionship. Head Teacher Obadiah, trapped in a loveless marriage, finds solace in drink and erudite commentaries. Kaplanski and Mavala start meeting for trysts at siesta time. Sometimes they’ll just talk; sometimes they’ll make love on the graves of the Voortrekkers (pioneer Boers). Both are enigmas: Kaplanski admits his “ineptitude” as a teacher, leading one to wonder why he’s there in the first place, and Mavala never reveals the identity of Tomo’s father. Is Kaplanski serious when he suggests they get married? Probably not. Any intentions evaporate in the heat as the cattle die. Mavala leaves again, abandoning her child; there had been unpleasantness with her sister and lecherous brother-in-law. In the endless drought, she becomes the memory of sweet rain.

Powerfully evocative, but wispy characterizations leave a void at the center.

Pub Date: April 24, 2006

ISBN: 0-316-73580-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2006

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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