COAL BLACK HORSE

Powerful and poetic.

The Civil War turns a boy into a man in Olmstead’s latest novel (after Stay Here with Me, 1996, etc.).

In 1863, a woman on a farm in the mountains, far removed from battle, has a premonition that tells her the war is over. The fighting might continue, but she knows that the outcome has been decided. She wants her husband to come home, and she sends her 14-year-old son to find him. Since Robey knows that this quest means the end of his childhood, he doesn’t want to go. And his mother doesn’t want to send him. But both have fated roles in this austere, elegiac fairy tale. Like all folkloric heroes, Robey is given gifts to help him on his journey, but the greatest is the coal black horse. The boy is smart enough to know that the horse is smarter than he is, and he allows the animal to be his protector and guide. As he travels across a country at war with itself, Robey sees chaos and carnage—not just soldiers killed by soldiers, but families murdered by unknown killers and women and girls brutalized by bestial men. The actual battlefield is a bedlam of dead men, dying men and scavengers who do not distinguish between the two. Olmstead juxtaposes scenes of man-made desolation with quietly lyrical depictions of the landscape and the animals that inhabit it—including the coal black horse—but he doesn’t sharpen the contrast between disparate phenomena so much as he evinces a primordial universe: a time before gods, before morality, a time in which war is as natural and inevitable as birdsong in the morning. If the story ends on a hopeful note, it’s not because Robey has found redemption or meaning—neither is available in the world to which he’s traveled. It is because, while death is relentless and indomitable, life is, too.

Powerful and poetic.

Pub Date: April 10, 2007

ISBN: 1-56512-521-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2006

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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