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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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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