An unforgiving look at a brutal system.

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THE MARS ROOM

Another searing look at life on the margins from the author of The Strange Case of Rachel K (2015) and The Flamethrowers (2013).

Romy Hall killed a man. This is a fact. The man she killed was stalking her. This is also a fact, but, as far as the jury was concerned, the first fact mattered more than the second. That’s why she’s serving two life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley. Romy soon learns that life in prison is, in many respects, like her former life working at the Mars Room, a down-market strip club in San Francisco. The fight for dominance among the powerless looks much the same anywhere, Romy explains, and this novel is very much a novel about powerlessness. Romy is smart, she loves her son, but the odds were against her from the beginning, and most of the stories that intertwine with hers are similar in both their general outlines and their particulars. Chaotic family backgrounds, heavy drug use, and sex work are common themes. Several of the women Romy meets have been in and out of the jail for much of their lives. There are exceptions, like Betty the one-time leg model, who paid a contract killer to murder her husband for life insurance money and then put out a hit on the hit man because she was afraid he would talk. She becomes something of a celebrity inside Stanville. The cop who killed the hit man also becomes a major character. He’s different from the women in this novel because he once had considerable power, but he, too, has a history of abuse and neglect. Gordon Hauser, who teaches GED–prep classes at Stanville, has more agency that any other main character, but he quickly learns the limits of his ability to help any of the women he meets. This is, fundamentally, a novel about poverty and how our structures of power do not work for the poor, and Kushner does not flinch. If the novel lags a bit in the long sections of backstory, it’s because the honest depiction of prison life is so gripping.

An unforgiving look at a brutal system.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5655-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

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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