Searing, but never over the top: Gappah holds the anger and horror in check with exemplary artistic discipline.



A fine, soul-stirring debut presents 13 snapshots of life in desperate contemporary Zimbabwe.

Hunger, disease and a worthless currency loom over this varied collection. In the title story, Josephat’s wife believes, after three miscarriages, that his aunts are eating her children. The truth, which involves her unfaithful husband and a pregnant madwoman in their ramshackle township, is almost as shocking. Rich or poor, Zimbabwean men are equally promiscuous. Esther, a South African, calls them “worthless dogs.” In “At the Sound of the Last Post,” she is attending the state funeral of her husband, a hero of the liberation struggle who died from AIDS, which stalks many of these characters. The funeral is a sham: Her husband was a corrupt bigamist who avoided the war. The meaty “Something Nice from London” spotlights a family of professionals dragged down by another useless male. After bleeding his parents dry, ne’er-do-well Peter lies dead in London, and his quarreling relatives await the return of his body in a scintillating black comedy. Elsewhere Gappah dips into the past. “Aunt Juliana’s Indian” shows an Indian shopkeeper/employer in 1979 to be almost as difficult as the whites, while in the effervescent “My Cousin-Sister Rambanai” the ever-adaptable title character, a young immigrant woman, hustles her way in 2002 from Texas to London via Harare, greasing palms back home to get a new passport. “The Negotiated Settlement” dissects a marriage. Thulani wed young and now feels trapped, though occasional flings relieve the pressure. His wife knows what he’s doing, but despite a revenge fling with a fellow teacher, she wants only Thulani. The author gives this unhappy couple a ray of hope at the end, which is unusual here. Frustrated in love, her characters are more likely to consider suicide, as the mental patient in “The Annex Shuffle” does, or to actually kill themselves, like the character in “The Maid from Lalapanzi.”

Searing, but never over the top: Gappah holds the anger and horror in check with exemplary artistic discipline.

Pub Date: June 2, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-86547-906-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2009

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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