A memorable portrait of a bizarre but credible marriage teetering between hope and despair.

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HARPSONG

A young man, his teenaged wife and his harmonica crisscross the Depression-era Southwest in Askew’s mournful, compelling, religion-infused third novel.

Sharon Thompson may be only 14, but as soon as mysterious stranger Harlan Singer appears in her small town of Cookson, Okla., she knows they are destined to mate. The self-named Harlan may be part Cherokee, but what’s for sure is his genius with the harmonica, or harp—he’s a veritable Pied Piper. He so charms Sharon’s dirt-poor parents (her Daddy is a traveling preacher) that they give him work. But work doesn’t agree with Harlan. After an almighty ruckus, Harlan whisks Sharon away to Muskogee, where they marry; they honeymoon atop a freight car, for Harlan has been riding the rails for years; Sharon, “ignorant as pudding,” realizes she doesn’t know her husband at all. Still, she shows spirit as they navigate the hobo jungles and run from the bulls, i.e., railroad detectives. Harlan is searching for Profit, his spiritual mentor, a smelly old hobo who once saved his life, but his search is as hopeless as Sharon’s for her family, since on their return to Cookson, her home is deserted; bank foreclosures have doomed the town. The past is unrecoverable; that is one of the novel’s themes, along with responsibility to our fellow man, also addressed in Askew’s Fire in Beulah (2001). Harlan, as retribution, robs the local bank and becomes the stuff of legend, though he later returns the money, for he and Sharon are religious folks, caught in a cycle of sin and the quest for redemption. Askew skillfully weaves their personal dramas (a miscarriage, Harlan’s fearsome beating by the bulls) with the communal hardships of the Depression; through it all floats the sound of Harlan’s harmonica, mesmerizing his listeners. Only toward the end does Askew’s control falter, when a stormy courthouse occupation by miners’ families detracts from the young couple’s ever-changing relationship.

A memorable portrait of a bizarre but credible marriage teetering between hope and despair.

Pub Date: May 30, 2007

ISBN: 0-8061-3823-8

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2007

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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