When the leads are offstage, the novel approaches greatness in its inquiry into what it means to be a good person. But...

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH

A literary war novel with a split personality, about a protagonist who loathes his dual character.

Ambition leads to excess in the sixth novel by Flanagan (Wanting, 2009, etc.), a prizewinning writer much renowned in his native Australia. The scenes of Australian POWs held by the Japanese have power and depth, as do the postwar transformations of soldiers on both sides. But the novel’s deep flaw is a pivotal plot development that aims at the literary heights of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary but sounds too often like a swoon-worthy bodice ripper. “His pounding head, the pain in every movement and act and thought, seemed to have as its cause and remedy her, and only her and only her and only her,” rhapsodizes Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who will be hailed as a national hero for his leadership in World War II, though he feels deeply unworthy. His obsession is Amy, a woman he met seemingly by chance, who has made the rest of his existence—including his fiancee—seem drab and lifeless. She returns his ardor and ups the ante: “God, she thought, how she wanted him, and how unseemly and unspeakable were the ways in which she wanted him.” Alas, it is not to be, for she is married to his uncle, and he has a war that will take him away, and each will think the other is dead. And those stretches are where the novel really comes alive, as they depict the brutality inflicted by the Japanese on the POWs who must build the Thai-Burma railway (which gives the novel its title) and ultimately illuminate their different values and their shared humanity.

When the leads are offstage, the novel approaches greatness in its inquiry into what it means to be a good person. But there’s too much “her body was a poem beyond memorising” for the novel to fulfill its considerable ambition.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-35285-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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