Reminiscent of Rodney Hall's Just Relations (1983) and, inevitably, of García Márquez, but a work of considerable...

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DEATH OF A RIVER GUIDE

The Aboriginal and European antecedents and origins of the remote Australian state of Tasmania are powerfully evoked in Flanagan's superb (1994) debut fiction, preceded in the US by his equally impressive later novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (2000).

The story's told in flashbacks (in the manner of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge")—or "visions"—experienced by river guide Aljaz Cosini during the final moments of the journey, when his raft capsizes and he drowns. Those visions comprise a richly layered narrative that leaps among such events and experiences as Aljaz's own birth, his troubled youth and volatile relationship with (half-Chinese) Couta Ho (the mother of his infant daughter, who dies in her crib); the histories of (Yugoslavian) mother Sonja and racially mixed father Harry, who met in Trieste during WWII, and the entangled misadventures of Harry's colorful family, dominated by such memorable figures as Harry's possibly mad Aunt Ellie (no mean fantasist herself, psychically attuned to both Tasmania's persecuted "old people" and the spirits who pursue them) and his grandfather Ned Quade, murderer, cannibal, and escaped convict, who is nevertheless sustained by his ironical vision (which permeates the story, in several surprising ways) of 'the New Jerusalem." Flanagan mixes these heady materials skillfully, focusing on illustrations of the inherited rootlessness and restlessness that have shaped Aljaz ("It had become easier, not belonging; he had learnt to cope with that, had made a life out of it, drifting"). And the narrative is enlivened by such magical-realist particulars as a funeral at which the crucified Christ appears to bleed, the image of a baby stolen and raised by a "sea eagle," and the spectacle of a bedspread permanently stained by a woman's tears.

Reminiscent of Rodney Hall's Just Relations (1983) and, inevitably, of García Márquez, but a work of considerable originality nevertheless. Flanagan's two novels rank with the finest fiction out of Australia since the heyday of Patrick White.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-8021-1682-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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