A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Carroll’s debut novel, a character study of two Americans teaching English in rural China, gracefully contrasts idealism and cynicism.

Epigraphs from W. Somerset Maugham and Paul Bowles evoke two precedents for this contemplative work on being a purposeless outsider. But the greatest debt is to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Carroll’s plot follows the uneasy relationship between two men, one older and jaded, the other young and idealistic. Thomas Guillard, a Minnesotan in his 60s, arrives in Ningyuan to work at an English language school. He has neither the passion nor affinity for teaching but persists halfheartedly—between bouts of drunkenness. Twenty-something Daniel, conversely, speaks Mandarin fluently and is popular with his students, especially enthusiastic Bella. “Daniel’s motive for moving abroad had been to reach out and learn something from the world,” which accounts for his embrace of new experiences, whether patronizing a brothel or sampling dog paw as the guest of honor at a holiday feast. There are no quotation marks, and the close third-person narration moves easily between Daniel’s and Guillard’s perspectives. The latter’s bad-tempered xenophobia emerges as he notices “the Chinese squatting…and eyeing him like children” in a bus station like “some cattle fair” and observes “the moon had risen—what a fat and ugly bitch.” Yet sympathy goes solely to Daniel, perhaps partially for autobiographical reasons—Carroll, too, taught English in China. No inner doubt or vulnerability humanizes Guillard, and the narrative unsubtly cements Daniel’s judgment: Guillard “had proven to be arrogant, lewd, and racist.” Guillard’s Scrooge-like persona doesn’t even lift for Christmas Day, when—in the novel’s standout sequence—Bella cooks him a duck. Never a romantic prospect for either man, Bella is enough of a desirable object to allow trumped-up sexual harassment charges to drive one of them away in a slightly forced plot twist. Set over one academic year, the novel has a clear mission it fulfills admirably while recalling W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner with its picture of befuddled foreignness. A pleasingly inconclusive ending paints home and new destinations as equally appealing.

 A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-941758-45-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Inkshares

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS

The story of the entangled affairs of a group of exceedingly smart and self-possessed creative types.

Frances, an aloof and intelligent 21-year-old living in Dublin, is an aspiring poet and communist. She performs her spoken-word pieces with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi, who is equally intellectual but gregarious where Frances is shy and composed where Frances is awkward. When Melissa, a notable writer and photographer, approaches the pair to offer to do a profile of them, they accept excitedly. While Bobbi is taken with Melissa, Frances becomes infatuated by her life—her success, her beautiful home, her actor husband, Nick. Nick is handsome and mysterious and, it turns out, returns Frances’ attraction. Although he can sometimes be withholding of his affection (he struggles with depression), they begin a passionate affair. Frances and Nick’s relationship makes difficult the already tense (for its intensity) relationship between Frances and Bobbi. In the midst of this complicated dynamic, Frances is also managing endometriosis and neglectful parents—an abusive, alcoholic father and complicit mother. As a narrator, Frances describes all these complex fragments in an ethereal and thoughtful but self-loathing way. Rooney captures the mood and voice of contemporary women and their interpersonal connections and concerns without being remotely predictable. In her debut novel, she deftly illustrates psychology’s first lesson: that everyone is doomed to repeat their patterns.

A clever and current book about a complicated woman and her romantic relationships.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49905-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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