A well-meaning parable that hews too closely to its moral.

THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS

A Tasmanian family grapples with death, extinction, and vanishing limbs.

Anna, Terzo, and Tommy Foley have a problem: Their 86-year-old mother, Francie, is dying, and they have to decide whether to let her. This choice pits Anna and Terzo—the “successful” siblings who, having left Tasmania to pursue joyless careers, now feel guilty for having neglected their mother—against Tommy, “a failed artist” who still lives in the Hobart area. Confusing a material existence for a meaningful one, Anna and Terzo demand life-prolonging intervention after life-prolonging intervention. Francie has surgery. She goes on dialysis. She is intubated. Time passes. Francie dwindles and suffers but, in a sense, lives. Meanwhile, Australia is burning, birds are dying, and parts of Anna’s body are vanishing. Literally. First her finger. Then her kneecap. Then another finger. Then her whole hand. Gone. “Like the thylacine and the Walkman. Like long sentences. Like smoke-free summers. Gone, never to return.” Yet what does Anna do about it? She reaches for her phone and “stare[s] solemnly at her screen,” taking a perverse comfort from the dead firefighters and charred songbirds of the Anthropocene extinction. Flanagan’s latest is haunted by a central feature of our modern epoch: human denial in the face of social and environmental cataclysm. Yet though Flanagan is justified in his outrage—the natural world is literally disappearing in front of our glazed eyes—he fails to embed his outrage in a convincingly articulated story. With every scene, every character, and every sentence deployed in unabashed support of the book’s themes, the novel lacks the narrative verisimilitude it needs to transcend the realm of polemic—a problem exacerbated by Flanagan’s summary-heavy style, his refusal to explore any setting, person, or idea with adequate depth or complexity. The disappearance of Anna’s body parts, for instance, is barely integrated into the story: She is rarely debilitated by her missing limbs, and the entire phenomenon reads like an overearnest symbol, an errant plot arc that the author, grasping for Gogol-ian profundity, pasted in and forgot to flesh out. Heartfelt though his work is, beautiful though his sentences are, Flanagan has given us an early draft—a fleshy sketch of a denser, better book.

A well-meaning parable that hews too closely to its moral.

Pub Date: May 25, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-31960-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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